MINNEAPOLIS — Mark Mothersbaugh is so much a part of pop culture that even if you aren’t a fan of his punk band Devo, you’re probably familiar with his music. Composer for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, a string of Wes Anderson movies, and a slew of Hollywood TV shows and films, Mothersbaugh’s art is part of the fabric of American culture.
Which is saying something for a guy who just wanted to be an artist back in his Kent State days, where he attended at the time of the Kent State massacre. His pop-star status may have been kind of an accident, but in Myopia, an exhibition that opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver last year and is now on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), Mothersbaugh’s output is portrayed as not just that of a rockstar and cultural icon, but as a subversive creative force worthy of a museum’s attention.
When Mark Mothersbaugh and his friends created the band Devo, they meant it as performance art. For their first performance at the Creative Arts Festival at Kent State in 1973, they described their work as “polyrhythmic tone exercises in de-evolution.” Mothersbaugh wore a pink gorilla mask and a white lab coat, while Bob Casale wore a butcher’s coat.
“I didn’t mean to be in a band,” Mothersbaugh said at a media preview for Myopia. “We thought we were doing agitprop.” They imagined they were doing their own version of Andy Warhol’s “Factory,” except they were in a real factory town — Akron, Ohio, where some of the band members were from. But then they got a record deal, which pulled the group down a path of record deals and record companies. “It was something we hadn’t anticipated, that was a lot more limiting and less satisfying than I expected,” Mothersbaugh said.
Eventually, Mothersbaugh was led into the film and TV business, recording music for Pee Wee’s Playhouse. “That was a great creative outlet,” he said, because instead of writing 12 songs and then spending the next year recording them and taking them on tour, he would write 12 songs once a week. “I was like: sign me up for this job!” he said. “I love it — the idea of getting to keep creating new music every day was to me so exciting.”
When Mothersbaugh became a regular collaborator for Wes Anderson and other Hollywood directors, he also began to show his work — including drawings, prints, sculptures, photos — in alternative galleries. “It wasn’t in the cool district with the real, fancy galleries where all the doctors and lawyers went to buy their art, but it was in the industrial gallery area,” said Mothersbaugh.
But as an artist with a capital “A,” Mothersbaugh never won the embrace of established arts institutions until Adam Lerner, of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, discovered him in 2011.
Lerner wanted to interview him about another artist, but within 15 minutes, he realized “this is the most creative person I’ve ever met,” Lerner said, as well as “one of the most important forces of our creative culture in the last 40 years.”
“It was amazing to me no one had told his story,” Lerner added. “Somehow no museum curator had thought it appropriate to include in an exhibition.”
At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Mothersbaugh is paired with an exhibition featuring Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex Leicester,” seeking comparison between the two. There are certain abstract threads that aligns Mothersbaugh with Leonardo da Vinci — a creative spirit, certainly, a prolific output, and a willingness to fail, but comparing one of the most creative geniuses of all time to Mothersbaugh might be a bit of a stretch.
When asked about the comparison, Mothersbaugh said that while he was sure in a challenge Leonardo da Vinci would outdo him in drawing of a “beefy naked man,” “if I said, who can write any style of music, I could write a better piece of music than him. So it depends on who goes first in the challenge.”
The most delightful pieces in the exhibition are Mothersbaugh’s “Orchestrations” — sound sculptures made out of old organ pipes and birdcalls. These conglomerations of pipes and wood blossom like scraps of flowers, making a chilling but oddly comforting sound.
His mirror-image portraits made out of found daguerreotypes, some of which are so small you have to squint to see them, are intriguing, as are the larger mirror-image sculptures of horse butts and cars. Basically, he’s taking images that have come out of popular culture (from long ago, in the case of the daguerreotypes) and by mirroring just one part of that image, turns the figures into monstrous mutants, falling in line with the “devolution” aesthetic of Devo.
The exhibition also showcases elements of the art that came out of Devo: archival videos, photographs, and objects, such as the Booji Boy masks Mothersbaugh used to wear for concerts. Unfortunately, as often happens when museums try to take performance and show it within the walls of a gallery, it doesn’t really quite capture the experience by turning something that was alive and vibrant into a static historical piece.
Though he has an art degree, there’s something of the outsider artist in Mothersbaugh’s work, particularly in his feat of creating 30,000 postcard-sized drawings, many of which the MIA has on display. Every day, Mothersbaugh makes “a couple to a whole bunch” of these diary entries. How many he creates “depends on how much angst I have or what particularly frustrated me or freaked me out,” he said. “I wake up a couple of times during the night. Things stick in my head that I remember or I’m concerned about — like a character in a movie or lyrics or something.”
The postcards are full of crude drawings of haggard men, warped cartoons, nightmares, and a dark, adolescent sensibility. Most impressive by their sheer numbers than by any one image, they are the product of someone whose impulse to create should give any artist inspiration.
“It’s kind of obsessive,” he says of his drawings. “ I would be super buff if I was working out as much as I draw.”
Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia continues at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (2400 3rd Ave S, Minneapolis) through August 30.
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