A childhood spent nearly blind gave Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh a clear vision of his future—just as soon as he got glasses.
“I got my first pair for my eighth birthday,” he recalls, “and saw birds flying, the tops of trees, even clouds for the first time in my life. It was amazing! I had never seen chimney smoke or the roof of a house and I immediately started drawing everything I saw.”
In celebration of the shortcoming that became his strength,“Myopia” is the title of Mothersbaugh’s first-ever retrospective on view at MCA Denver (through April 12, 2015).
As the story goes, the spectacles allowed him to finally see not only the sky above him, but also the life ahead of him; that night Mothersbaugh dreamed he was going to become an artist. As the exhibition shows, he has. But it wasn’t just the glasses that kickstarted his creative career. Mothersbaugh was an art student at Kent State in 1970—during the incomprehensible Kent State shootings—when he formed Devo. Short for “devolution,” the name represented the band’s belief that humans are regressing instead of progressing, as evidenced by the political and social dysfunction around them.
In addition to nine studio albums and dozens of famously absurd videos (the band often donned costumes as self-described nuclear garbagemen and utopian boy scouts), Devo designed posters and postcards to promote, and sometimes financially support, their endeavors. Mothersbaugh sold illustrated postcards in Rolling Stone classified ads, and he and founding member Gerald Casale sold rubber stamps in a mall store to raise money for their first film.
Extraordinarily prolific, Mothersbaugh painted, drew, and sculpted on the side. But he’s never had gallery representation. Exhibition curator Adam Lerner notes:
“Art is not about what you make, it’s about how you live.”
Mothersbaugh appears to have cleaved a life that’s brightly—and sometimes garishly—colored, full of confrontational ideas, sharp elbows, and cutting asides. So many manifestations are on view in “Myopia.”
Since the ’60s, Mothersbaugh has created upwards of 30,000 illustrated postcards that inform much of his other work, including: small, round, molded men with fatal-looking protrusions emerging from their heads; rugs designed “for times of war and peace;” giant rumps of My Little Ponies fused together to form headless creatures; and photographs that render the faces of historical figures into mutants. He’s also assembled giant sculptures that sing like birds. No matter the medium, everything is fantastic, surreal—Mothersbaugh’s own brand of senselessness.
Tucked into an illuminated, encased pedestal, is a crown jewel—the world’s largest ruby (30,090 carats). Mothersbaugh had the stone carved into the shape of a soft serve ice cream swirl and perched atop a bronze cone. Remove the cone and examine the title, “Ruby Kusturd,” and you find yourself contemplating a steaming pile, the sparkling kin of your favorite smiling emoji:
You may be more familiar with some of Mothersbaugh’s other works. He’s written the musical scores for Pee Wee’s Playhouse and a slew of Wes Anderson films including Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic. (You can listen to a selection of these in the exhibition.)
In a prospectus posted in “Myopia,” as well as in various incarnations around the internet, Anderson fantasizes about commissioning a theme park entirely of Mothersbaugh’s making, that would include “hundreds of animatronic characters and creatures, rides through vast invented landscapes and buildings, extensive galleries…plus an ongoing original musical score piped in everywhere.” He notes that Mothersbaugh’s “work has always been unified and singular (perhaps a result of the simple fact that it all comes from the same exotic and densely populated alien planet: his brain).”
I’m not convinced of Mothersbaugh and Anderson’s futures in theme parks. But Mothersbaugh’s persistence in making art and its inextricable relationship with his life does feel like a proof-positive method to keep moving forward, even if and when it feels like the rest of the world is moving backwards.