On View at the Jones Center
An incredibly prolific artist, musician, and tinkerer, Mark Mothersbaugh (American, born 1950 in Akron, Ohio) has been making art between and beyond individual mediums since before the inception of his band DEVO in the early 1970s. His body of work presents a surreal vision of cultural criticism and personal expression through drawings, films, paintings, sculpture, and music. While Mothersbaugh is most commonly described as a musician, Myopia, the artist’s first monographic museum retrospective, re-contextualizes his career through attention to his multifaceted visual art practice and his participation in a larger network of countercultural art production since the 1970s. Adam Lerner, Director and Chief Animator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and curator of this exhibition, suggests a wide-ranging view of the ways this “artful polymath” might be understood within the context of twentieth-century avant-garde art and culture. At The Contemporary Austin, Mothersbaugh’s sonic, visual, and experiential projects are organized in thematic sections spanning the first- and second-floor galleries of the Jones Center, the museum’s downtown venue.
Drawing together some of his earliest and most recent projects, the exhibition illuminates the social and political environment of Mothersbaugh’s artistic origins and the evolution of his ideas over time. Mothersbaugh entered college during a time of political and social upheaval: he was a sophomore at Kent State University in May 1970, when National Guardsmen shot and killed four of his fellow students, a profoundly traumatic event for his generation. This experience, combined with the cultural climate of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, raised disturbing questions about the future of humanity. Reckoning with such communal anxieties, Mothersbaugh and his artist friends extracted the concept of de-evolution from a 1924 religious pamphlet. The group of artists, writers, and musicians formed DEVO to communicate their belief in de-evolution, an irreverent yet grim assessment of the fate of American postwar culture amid the turbulence of the 1970s. De-evolution was also a unifying philosophical principle in Mothersbaugh’s early work. The impact of this era is evident in the artist’s fascination with mutation, technocracy, and their physical and psychological effects on human subjects. His practice pairs insistent images of the repetition and standardization of an industrial consumer culture with mutated forms and irrational interventions. Representations of robots, mutants, potatoes, masks, and medical oddities serve as darkly humorous symbols that project a constellation of possible manifestations of de-evolution.
For this exhibition, the first floor of the Jones Center focuses primarily on Mothersbaugh’s performative work from the DEVO years, displaying photographs, posters, video, music, and other ephemera. Since DEVO’s first appearance at the Creative Arts Festival at Kent State University in 1973, Mothersbaugh and his bandmate and collaborator Gerald Casale envisioned their efforts as more than “art rock.” Festival participants, including the likes of Beat poet Michael McClure and experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, sought to break down disciplinary boundaries. In this milieu, Mothersbaugh and Casale began developing an artistic vision in which costume, music, performance, and film came together as crucial counterparts of a total performative artwork. Mothersbaugh’s development of new forms with DEVO set the stage for many of his later projects.
On the second floor of the Jones Center, the exhibition features a series of postcard-sized drawings Mothersbaugh has been producing daily since the 1970s, which now exceed 30,000 in number. The drawings are mainly rendered in pen and ink in an impish comic book style that grew out of the Underground Comix movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Alongside these works, the aforementioned themes of mutation and technology intertwine in graphic rugs that metamorphose the artist’s drawings into domestic objects. A diverse array of Mothersbaugh’s hard-to-categorize experiments are also exhibited on this floor, including his orchestrions, sculptural sonic machines that cull found elements (such as birdcalls or abandoned organ pipes) to produce unexpected musical scores.
Throughout his career, Mothersbaugh has embraced handmade qualities in his work while simultaneously utilizing the slick aesthetic of consumer culture. Punctuating the exhibition on both floors are highly polished sculptures that walk this fine line, such as Mutatum, 2012, an oddly dysfunctional yet seamless composite of two rear sections of a Toyota Scion. Playfully mocking the dehumanizing aspects of our technologically saturated world, Mothersbaugh asks, how can we be ourselves in the face of an impersonal, consumerist society? Mothersbaugh doesn’t simply advocate for a war of the organic against the mechanistic, nor does he maintain a detached, ironic distance. Instead, the artist insists that there is room for individual creativity in contemporary society. Sometimes the picture he paints is dark and cynical and sometimes it is playful and light, but he consistently advocates for the possibility of finding personal pleasure and artistic expression in the realms of both technology and the handmade.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
Exhibition coordinated at The Contemporary Austin by Sean Ripple, Assistant Curator. Text by Jessi DiTillio, Mercer Curatorial Fellow, The Contemporary Austin.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia is accompanied by a 256-page, full-color catalogue (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), available for purchase at both museum locations.
Mark Mothersbaugh Exhibition Support: American Genre Film Archive, Horizon Bank, Hotel Ella, South Congress Hotel, Vision Fund Leaders and Contributors