Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh Still Loves Fucking with People
Everyone pigeonholes Mark Mothersbaugh for being a punk pioneer, but he's also been making fine-art for decades. I talked with him at his first major exhibition, <i>Myopia</i>, which features a huge ruby carved in the shape of poop.
Everyone pigeonholes Mark Mothersbaugh as a punk pioneer, but the Devo frontman has been actively drawing, painting, making prints, short films, rugs, and sculptures for decades. The guy who is responsible for revolutionizing music videos and writing the Pee Wee's Playhouse theme song is having his first major gallery exhibition at the Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, which will be open from now until April. The exhibit is called Myopia and it takes up the entire three floors of the museum, turning the massive concrete building into a cartoonish, beautiful war zone of witty politics and childlike nightmares. (The shows title comes from the eye condition that left Mothersbaugh legally blind until the age of eight, when he was given a pair of prescription glasses that opened the world up to him, which, he said, was when he decided to be an artist.)
The exhibit is comprised of several rooms that take the viewer through the chronological development of Mothersbaugh's art. It begins with his illustrated journal entries blown up into large prints. Then it moves on to his video work with Devo, followed by his bizarre musical sculptures, one of which is made of whistling pipes that cause anxious pump-organ bird calls to reverberate throughout the building. There's even a enormous ruby carved into the shape of poo and a thousand postcards hand-drawn by Mothersbaugh.
"He's one of the most creative forces in American culture for the last 40 years," said Adam Lerner, the MCA curator who has been working with Mothersbaugh on this exhibit over the past two years and also collaborated with Mothersbaugh on a companion book. The book has a forward written by Wes Anderson, who Mothersbaugh has plans to make a crazy theme park with in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
I checked out Myopia at the end of October, a couple days before the exhibit opened to the public. At the time, a lot of the other sculptures hadn't arrived—they were held up at the Mexican border because officials thought they contained cocaine. When I got there, Lerner and Mothersbaugh were conducting an interview before a small crowd of a dozen journalists. Lerner gushed over his hero and provided a historical context that linked Motherbaugh's early artwork from northern Ohio to the sound and vision stuff he did later on that was too weird for New York.
Mothersbaugh attended Kent State University in 1970, where he witnessed the anti-Vietnam protests that left four students dead at the hands of the National Guard. This was around the time that he met Jerry Casale and Bob Lewis, with whom he would go on to form Devo. Leading up to this, Mothersbaugh said he'd been endlessly influenced by the Beatles and Roxy Music. But one day in 1974 he saw a magazine ad for laserdiscs and came to the conclusion that rock 'n' roll was dead.
"I thought that art students were going to take over pop culture," he said. " Sound and vision is going to change everything. Who cares about a record with a cover on it? Now you can do a whole album with pictures that go along to the music. So we thought we were making products for laserdisc with Devo."
Following the group question and answer session, Mothersbaugh sat down with me for a brief chat about his five-decade retrospective show and pissing people off.
VICE: Do you think that growing up in the obscurity of Akron gave you a more authentic edge over your contemporaries in New York, who had perhaps been over-saturated with art and culture their entire lives?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Because it was a cultural wasteland at the time, it allowed us to ferment and to coagulate. It allowed us to become what we became, and be certain about it before we ever got attacked by the press.
People who had been in New York City for a while and went to Max's Kansas City and CBGB's, they'd seen Talking Heads just starting and changing members. Same with Blondie, who would drop a drummer and pick up somebody else or switch out guitar players. People who had been in that scene got to see those bands develop. But when Devo showed up, we were a fully developed entity. We didn't come up as a minor player in the game.
We'd been making videos and recording singles and doing our own graphics before we event left Ohio. I knew how to use blueprint machines to make large posters for 50 cents a piece. For ten bucks, we could make up 20 of these posters that say: "Tomorrow night at Max's Kansas City..." Instead of handing out fliers, we put up these big Devo posters around Manhattan, featuring these guys who weren't wearing jeans. We looked like Russian cosmonauts or a waste-cleanup crew. So that's what growing up in Ohio provided us: The time to put together our own fully-formed aesthetic.
Your work always has this combination of the cerebral and the playful. Did it ever become difficult not letting things drift too far in either direction?
I make mistakes. But if I'm working in Devo, it's kind of easy because Jerry [Casales] and I balance each other out. It's symbiotic. I get to be the irresponsible, crazy, speaking-in-tongues boojie boy, and he gets to be the strategist and the explainer.
Adam [Lerner] kind of filled that role in this art show. He was responsible for developing the exoskeleton of how we would arrange things by room. When I told him what I wanted to do, he would give me the pros and cons of the different choices for the displays. Because I was originally thinking about keeping all the Devo things out, this show has become much bigger than I anticipated when Adam and I first started talking about it. He made it a retrospective that includes artwork that I thought nobody would ever see. I assumed I would pass away and then my wife would say, "OK, those red books over there—to the landfill."
Does seeing the entire narrative arc of your creative life presented in one show make you want to scrap the whole thing and pursue something completely different?
I think this show has enough range that I don't think that will happen. But that's what kept me disinterested from the world of fine art, because I have friends like Gary Panter or Robert Williams, who were painters who, once they had galleries represent them, they had to do artwork in one style. They had to develop and nurture a brand. I already had record companies do that to me. If they did that to my visual art, I couldn't take it.
If you look me up on Wikipedia it doesn't say that I've done over 150 art gallery shows in the last 20 years. It doesn't say anything about my art at all. It only talks about the feature films and TV theme songs and commercials and games—and then Devo. I don't know who puts Wikipedia out, but they somehow missed this whole thing. I've been thinking about creating a different Mark Mothersbaugh page on Wikipedia that would start with Devo and then ignore everything musical and only talk about things I've done in the world of art.
People are always trying to artificially name your intellectual activities. That's why I enjoyed being anonymous. I enjoyed not having to go through the galleries. When I did do them over the last 15 years, they were always pop-up and street galleries, skateboard and graffiti art galleries.
I did do some museums, but I'd say around 125 of the galleries I did were always run by a few kids. And it was always the same story: They just got out of college, they know they're going to have to get a job with some newspaper pasting up ads for Walmart in the fall. But before that happens, they wanted to show people that right here in, say, Saginaw, Michigan, we've got some of the best graffiti artists and street artists as anywhere in the world. Just as good as that Shepard Fairey guy or Futura 2000 or Banksy. We can do things even better than them. So they start a gallery, but not in the section of town where doctors and lawyers and attorneys go to buy artwork for their offices. They go to some warehouse or storefront in a funky part of town. Only 30 people show up, and the local paper doesn't even review it.
In light of your mainstream success with children's shows like Rugrats, Yo Gabba Gabba, and The Lego Movie, is it hard for you to make subversive art these days?
Maybe. Maybe not. Being subversive back in the 70s involved being more naughty, more sexual. With today... Let me tell you a story:
A few years ago I became friends with a gemologist, and I saw all these gems that he had lying around, one of which was this big ugly stone that I picked up. "That's the world's largest ruby you're holding." He didn't know what to do with it, so next time I saw him I asked if I could carve it. It's right over there. [Points across the room to a glass case.]
I was thinking: Who do you sell the world's largest ruby to? Somebody who's uber-rich. And people don't get uber-rich unless there's something dark attached to it. It's always communists in China, or drug dealers in South America, or oil people in Russia. It's those kinds of people who are going to want the world's largest ruby. And I wanted to fuck with them in some way. So I said: I'm going to carve it into a turd. But it will look like a custard. I'm going set it on top of a cone, and it will look like a sweet-treat, but really it's a turd. They'll buy it because it's the world's largest ruby, but only I'll know that it's a turd.
But now I've told you, so I kind of ruined it.
Does the desire to fuck with people wane with age?
What happens is, you become a better shot. You know how to aim at the right place to accomplish what you want, instead of being a firehose that sprays everywhere. You take careful aim and make the most of it.
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