Mark Mothersbaugh: Freedom from Propriety
by Steve Davison
Mark Mothersbaugh is a renaissance man with a successful career in both music and art. He fronted the seminal new wave rock band Devo, best known for their revenge of the nerd-still-ahead-of-its-time-anthem “Whip It” (who can forget that video and that guitar part?). The band was noteworthy for its contributions to the nascent genre of music videos in the 1980s. “We thought we were going to help bury Rock and Roll.” Mothersbaugh said of Devo’s agenda. Post-Devo, Mothersbaugh has amassed an impressive list of film and television scores including Rugrats, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and The Lego Movie, as well as collaborating with director Wes Anderson.
Even before Devo signed a recording contract, Brian Eno and David Bowie offered to whisk band to Germany to record an album. Mick Jagger declared that Devo’s cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, was his favorite remake. And his prolific television and film career? Mothersbaugh described it as, “a job that I just fell into.” Given his musical accomplishments, many people are surprised to learn that Mothersbaugh started as a visual artist.
By his account, he became an artist as a child when he started wearing glasses to correct his nearsightedness. The experience was akin to a miracle, and inspired him to start drawing in earnest. Another profound event was witnessing the shooting of Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard, while he was a student at the campus in 1970. These events informed the dichotomy of absurd nihilism and regimented uniformity that are the hallmarks of his work.
“Subversion changes things.” Mothersbaugh said. An effective strategy for change is to work from the inside. Looking for inspiration, he decided to employ to the ultimate agent of change: Madison Avenue. An example of calculated subversion was the inclusion of messages into the audio tracks of commercials produced by Mothersbaugh and bandmate Bob Casales. “Sugar is bad for you!”, was hidden into the drum track of a Hawaiian Punch advertisement.
Of all his creative pursuits, Mothersbaugh was most adamantly protective of his visual art. For years he chose to exhibit in small pop-up shows or guerilla galleries, sometimes contacting venues after seeing their advertisements in Juxtapoz magazine. His mistrust of art institutions and commercial galleries was the outcome of the Devo’s bad experiences with tyrannical record labels in the 1970s and 80s. Distrust of the art world changed, however when Mothersbaugh met Adam Lerner in 2011. Lerner is the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and the curator of Mothersbaugh’s retrospective exhibition, Myopia.
Selections from Myopia illustrate the dualism that Lerner describes as informing Mothersbaugh’s aesthetics. From the literal uniformity of Devo’s matching jumpsuits and synchronized moves, to the chaotic and unpredictable nature of Mothersbaugh’s masked alter ego Booji Boy, whom Learner describes as “free from the dictates of propriety”. For all his anarchic sympathies, Mothersbaugh nonetheless spoke about the importance of maintaining a sense of wonder, and stated that in so many ways, there has never been a better time to be an artist.