Since it’s set to close near the end of the month, this is the last call for Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia, the blockbuster show that’s been running at MCA Denver since Halloween. Curated by MCA director Adam Lerner, Myopia is the latest example of Lerner’s interest in exploring the history of the counterculture from the late twentieth century. Previous efforts included Bruce Connor and the Primal Scene of Punk Rock and West of Center, which examined the communes and collectives that sprang up in the American West in the 1960s. Interestingly, since these movements are now fairly old, reviving them represents something entirely new.
“I knew DEVO as a teenager, and I thought they were a cool band, but I didn’t think much of them,” says Lerner. “Then, when I was doing research on the Bruce Connor exhibit, DEVO was playing at the Denver County Fair. I wanted to interview Mark about working with Bruce Connor, who did one of their artist videos. I didn’t know anything about Mark at all at the time, but within a few minutes of talking with him, I felt really strongly that this is the most creative person I’d ever met and one of the most creative forces in our culture of the last forty years.”
Lerner came away from that meeting determined to mount a show that looked through the staggeringly vast amount of Mothersbaugh material. “I had to tell his story because the art world — even art history — doesn’t understand who he is.”
The exhibit casts Mothersbaugh in the role of a visual artist and puts DEVO into the context of performance art. Mothersbaugh was a visual artist before DEVO, and he continued to create art both during the band’s heyday and afterward as he took on the career of a composer. Myopia reveals that he often created work that transgresses the boundaries of visual art, performance and music, with the best example being DEVO itself.
The show is chronological at times and thematic at others — including at the very start, where the entry is marked by a trio of recently made arches. These arches are part of Mothersbaugh’s “Little Pony” series, in which he cut a My Little Pony toy in half laterally, joined the two hind ends and then had the form blown up into a monumental casting.
It’s an example of mirroring, in which each half of a piece mirrors the other. Although they are out of order in the show date-wise, the “Little Pony” sculptures are still well positioned, because they prefigure a persistent theme among Mothersbaugh’s conceptual interests: the juxtaposition of order and mutation. Here the “Little Pony” works are compositionally balanced on the one hand, yet freakish on the other.
The first large gallery establishes Mothersbaugh’s artistic beginnings in the 1970s. He was an art student at Kent State University when four anti-Vietnam War protesters were shot and killed there by the National Guard. This was a pivotal event in his life and sparked the idea for DEVO. Mothersbaugh began to believe that the world wasn’t evolving, but devolving. He picked up on the post-pop, neo-dada vibes in the air at the time, and this interest established the foundation for everything he would do afterward. Lerner is right: This type of art has been mostly missed by art historians.
This gallery features notebooks and journals, along with depictions of the nascent DEVO in photos and videos. The many sketches on view explain the show’s title, Myopia, which is a type of nearsightedness. The images are often tiny and meticulously detailed, as though Mothersbaugh had his nose to the paper, which he pretty much did when he created them. “He was very comfortable working at a very small scale, since things at a distance were distorted,” Lerner notes. Also artfully conveying his sight issues are Mothersbaugh’s signature from his DEVO days: nerdy eyeglasses.
His early works reveal that he was savvy about publicity, creating stickers and rubber-stamped images that he put up around campus. This bent for promotion would pay off big time when he wound up in Los Angeles riding DEVO’s wave of success. Videos and artifacts from this period, including one of those zigzag hats worn by the guys in the band, are showcased in the next gallery. There are also videos related to Mothersbaugh’s career from the 1980s to the present, during which time he scored music for television — Pee-wee’s Playhouse and a number of other kids’ shows. (Mothersbaugh would later compose music for movies, as well, including a number of Wes Anderson films.)
The MCA show continues upstairs, in a gallery filled with photo-based pieces that are further examples of Mothersbaugh’s interest in mirroring. For these, Mothersbaugh began with antique photographic portraits; he duplicated one side of the sitter’s face, then flipped it and used it to fill in the other side.
These photos are very goth. In the middle of the room is a Scion van — sort of: A pair of vans were chopped in half, and then their two rear ends were seamlessly joined together.
Another gallery upstairs houses some tapestries based on Mothersbaugh’s images, but, more important, it includes outlandish musical instruments made out of ad hoc materials that he calls “Orchestrions.”
These contraptions were created to play music specifically composed for them. In “Mechanical Aviary,” a cage-like construction houses electronic amplifiers and mechanical parts that automatically sound old bird calls. In “The General,” a framework in the shape of a truncated cone has been built, with salvaged organ pipes taken from destroyed church organs radiating out from it at regular intervals. The pipes, of course, create the sound, powered by a combination of electronic and mechanical devices.
Other highlights from the second floor include prints based on Mothersbaugh’s drawings and an installation of his “Roli-Poli” figures, which resemble garden gnomes.
But the climax of the whole show is the gallery dedicated to the display of thousands of small drawings done on postcard-sized paper. Here are all of Mothersbaugh’s interests at once. There’s the blending together of dada, pop, patterning, mirroring, advertising, comics, cartoons, storybook imagery, science-fiction illustrations and more. These referents expose the entire range of the highbrow/lowbrow dialogue that’s been so important in the art world during the last several decades. The challenge of showcasing such a large volume of material was skillfully solved by exhibition designer Ben Griswold, who carried out Myopia to a very high standard. Above rows of low platforms, Griswold installed prominent hanging lights. On each of the platforms is a set of twenty binders, their pages replaced by clear plastic sleeves that can be flipped. In this way, the enormous number of drawings could be displayed simultaneously.
The show ends on the subterranean lower level, where there’s a grab bag of material from various dates. It could have been better used, perhaps, to exhibit pieces from Colorado’s own ’70s-’80s neo-dada scene, one that included artists like John Haeseler and Rex Ray, both of whom are deceased, and Floyd Tunson, who is still going strong.
The sheer volume of Mothersbaugh’s visual output, an effort he’s sustained during the past four decades, clearly sets him apart from the many other celebrities who have lately declared themselves to be artists — or, as is the case with the current Björk disaster at New York’s Museum of Modern Art — have been declared to be artists by curators. Mothersbaugh might be a pop star, but he’s also clearly a committed visual artist.
Through April 26 at MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, mcadenver.org.
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