Seeing Clearly

Myopia is devoted to the visual art of Devo’s prolific Mark Mothersbaugh

click to enlarge Mark Mothersbaugh stands among works that feature his altered high-school yearbook photo.
Mark Mothersbaugh stands among works that feature his altered high-school yearbook photo.

Mark Mothersbaugh - Photo: Jesse Fox

C

incinnati, in some ways, was the start of me being an artist,” says Mark Mothersbaugh, relaxing as best he can, given his constantly enthused, exuberant state, in a meeting room at downtown’s Contemporary Arts Center. “So there’s something about coming back here that is this completion of a cycle.”

In the building on this day, much is going on that is about him. The CAC is preparing to open (at 8 p.m. Friday to the general public) its much-anticipated exhibit, Myopia. The show, curated by Adam Lerner of Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art, looks at the Akron, Ohio native’s career as a visual artist/designer, as well as his accomplishments as a co-founder and lead singer of the Post-Punk/Art-Rock band Devo and subsequently as an in-demand composer for film and television, creating music for such Wes Anderson movies as The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and Rushmore, as well as The Lego Movie, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Rugrats.

The exhibition’s name comes from the fact that Mothersbaugh, now 65, could barely see as a child until he was diagnosed with myopia, or nearsightedness, and received corrective glasses. (Today, he designs his own glasses — he was wearing a pair for this interview.)

In one of the museum’s galleries, employees were arranging one of Mothersbaugh’s devilishly quirky art projects for a newspaper shoot. He had painted upon oversized letterpress prints of his high-school yearbook photo, which he had already digitally altered to make his head bulge outward like a bursting overripe tomato. In the CAC’s lower-level Black Box Theater, members of concert:nova soon would be arriving to rehearse for a then-upcoming performance of Mothersbaugh’s music, including Devo favorites.

But for now, Mothersbaugh isn’t concerned with all that. He’s busy looking at a 45-RPM vinyl single from Booji Boy Records with an imaginatively designed foldout picture sleeve of Devo performing. It belongs to this writer, who bought a copy at New York’s Bleecker Bob’s record store in 1977.

This was the record that started Devo’s career, and it was pressed here in Cincinnati in 1976. Devo’s members paid for
it themselves. (Devo had started when the principal members were Kent State University art students.)

“I love that record,” Mothersbaugh says of the single. “We had no idea what a record company was. That was the first time I came to Cincinnati, and I drove down with (Devo members) Jerry and Bob Casale and Bob (Mothersbaugh’s brother) and somebody with a car. It was very exciting.”

“The closer we got, we were sweating and talking,” he continues. “And we got more and more nervous as we came to a place called Queen City Records where they pressed vinyl. We got to some industrial part of town and at this building they handed us boxes, maybe five boxes with 200 copies each. And we had this piece of vinyl that was this vindication that we were artists. It was so exciting.”

Back in Akron, they assembled the packaging around the records and — viola! — had 1,000 copies of “Jocko Homo”/“Mongoloid.” They were now recording artists, and “Jocko Homo” became their credo with its lyric, “Are we not men?/We are Devo/Are we not men?/D-E-V-O.” (They had also made a music video with Chuck Statler.)

Within two years, buoyed by great press for their weird, scary/funny look and sound, Devo was on a major record label, Warner Bros., and appearing on Saturday Night Live. In another two years, they had a hit single, “Whip It,” and were a respectable — if idiosyncratic — touring act that sold albums and got airplay.  They were especially known for strange lyrical subject matter and for wearing yellow hazmat suits and red flowerpot-like “energy dome” headgear on stage.

In Devo’s case, this success was particularly poignant because the band at least partly arose as a response to the killing of four students on the Kent State campus by Ohio National Guard members in May 1970.

“It definitely had a strong effect on us,” Mothersbaugh says. “(Casale) and I both were visual artists first. It was because of the shootings that we couldn’t go to school where we had been collaborating on some visual pieces together. So he started coming over to my place and we began working on music together.”

Already interested in all things 20th-century avant-garde, from Italian Futurism and John Cage to Captain Beefheart, they watched (and listened to the sounds of) Vietnam War footage on the TV news and thought about appropriating that aggressive noise toward artistic means. Putting it all together, it looked like the world was de-evolving. That got shortened to Devo, and a mock-backstory was built around the band’s beliefs and appearance.

Devo is still a band today, though less active than in the 1980s. They toured last year, after the death of Bob Casale. Their members can still make news — Gerald Casale is embroiled in a bizarre controversy about a 9/11-themed wedding party.

Myopia is out to prove that Devo as a music group has had long-lasting connections to contemporary art.

But with hundreds of objects, it’s especially devoted to making the case that Mothersbaugh alone is, in the words of curator Lerner, “one of the most creative forces in America maybe in the last 40 years.”

That is quite a statement, especially considering that Mothersbaugh hadn’t really ever had a major museum show, much less a career retrospective, before. He was little known as a visual artist of consequence until Myopia debuted in Denver last year.

Lerner, that museum’s director (and chief animator for the department of fabrications, sort of like a curator), had never even heard of Mothersbaugh before 2011. At that time, Lerner was organizing an exhibit on the avant-garde multimedia artist Bruce Conner, whose work included photographing Devo. Noticing that Devo was set to play the Denver County Fair, Lerner set out to interview someone, anyone, from the band about working with Conner. He got Mothersbaugh.

“Within 15 minutes of speaking with Mark, I had a very strong feeling he was one of the most creative people I ever met,” Lerner says. Intrigued, he subsequently went to Los Angeles to meet Mothersbaugh at the thriving full-service music-production company, Mutato Muzika, that Mothersbaugh had established in 1989.

“I discovered rooms and rooms filled with prints, photographs, sculpture, videos and boxes and boxes with thousands of drawings and collages,” Lerner says. “I fell in love with the material and realized there was a story there. The centerpiece of it all were the postcard-sized drawings and collages, works on paper that he had collected in loose-leaf binders. He had hundreds of those. It was like this dynamo waiting to be released. So I made the introduction to the art world.”

Those works on paper, referred to as “postcard diaries,” began in earnest for Mothersbaugh after he left Kent State. In the exhibit, they fill some 100 red binders. The postcards can be drawings — ink, crayon, watercolors, collage or paint — that are by turns grotesque, surreal or comic. There can be monsters, there can be robots, there can be eyeballs.

Mothersbaugh recalls how he first started sending postcards to artists he admired — Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, the duo known as Ant Farm — and got replies. “If you’re a nobody from Akron, Ohio who feels like nobody cares about anything you did, the idea that you can send a postcard to Robert Indiana and he would write back to you was really heavy when I was a kid,” he says. “It was really affirming to me as an artist.”

Once he was in Devo, the concept slowly changed to him making “postcard diaries” to save. “Back in those days, I’d make one a day,” he says. “I would share them with the other guys in Devo. We’d be bored on an airplane or sitting at a radio station and waiting to talk about the show we were doing that night. I could work in any style I wanted.”

Another part of the Myopia exhibition is devoted to his Beautiful Mutant series of photographs, which marked his introduction to the joys of digitally manipulating images. For these, Mothersbaugh uses old daguerreotype photographs as a source, but alters them to create humans who look sort of creature-like yet are also recognizable. It seems related to two old horror movies he loved and that played a part in the Devo mythos — Island of Lost Souls and Freaks.

“It was a time when I was living alone, and it was this thing where I was creating this family in my house every night,” Mothersbaugh says. “I was working on a Wes Anderson film by day. At night I’d come home and I was building these images. It was like I was making this village that didn’t exist.

“I’d buy antique photos and antique photo frames on eBay — the kind Civil War soldiers would carry in their breast pockets when they went to war,” he continues. “I’d leave the photos originally in those frames there, but I would slide in my corrected photos on top of that and they looked great.”

In the show are also three-dimensional objects, like the sound-making “orchestrions,” and an altered Scion automobile that consists of two connected back-to-back rear ends.

And then there is the large ruby, over 33,000 carats, that was cut in India under Mothersbaugh’s orders to resemble piled-high, wavy custard in a polished-bronze cone. It’s called “Ruby Kusturd.”

Actually, Mothersbaugh swears, it’s meant to look like a “turd” — as in feces — but has been disguised a bit. This prankish project started when a gemologist friend told Mothersbaugh he had acquired a large ruby and didn’t know what to do with it.

“I said, ‘I know what to do,’ ” Mothersbaugh says. “For people who are going to collect it, freak them out. Instead of carving it into like a Liberty Bell or an eagle, carve it into a turd. So somebody who wants the biggest ruby in world has to buy a turd.”

The two partnered on the project. As of this story’s deadline, it was for sale.

Mothersbaugh’s subversive wit is still free-flowing. But it’s the quality of the artwork and the ideas behind it that has caused so many to take a long, clear look at Myopia so far. Response has been so positive that it has been extended beyond its originally announced U.S. tour to now include Los Angeles, New York and a show jointly hosted by museums in Akron and Cleveland.

“I thought I was going to be dead before it happened,” Mothersbaugh says. “When (Lerner) suggested this to me, I was intrigued by the idea but not sure how I felt about it. Some of it scared me at first, like the diaries. I was intimidated by some of it being out there. But what the hell — we’re all weird. It’s been cathartic and enjoyable, amazing and incredible. It’s been so much more fulfilling than I ever would have imagined.”


MYOPIA opens at the CAC 8 p.m. Friday and continues through Jan. 9. Visit contemporaryartscenter.org for more information.


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