Minneapolis

Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) is a timeless sort of place. Sure, its first floor boasts an urban-inspired coffee bar with contemporary furnishings that gesture toward the present day, but the galleries tell a different story of time altogether. From costumes to hand-painted ceramics, ritual objects to period rooms, the MIA offers abstract snapshots of other places and other times, mixing centuries and geographies of artwork and artifacts. Walking through the darkened labyrinth of galleries dedicated to the arts of Asia on the second floor, one will eventually arrive at the museum’s contemporary section. Entering these galleries and into the exhibition Myopia is something like taking an ambling path through the strange and colorful brain of the artist who inspired it.

Mark Mothersbaugh. My Little Pony, 2013; ceramics; 53 x 59 x 33 in. Courtesy of the artist and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Mark Mothersbaugh. My Little Pony, 2013; ceramics; 53 x 59 x 33 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Mark Mothersbaugh is perhaps best known as the front man of DEVO, and Myopia begins here. With shards of melody and harder-to-place sounds emanating from various corners and side rooms, photos of the oddball punk-rock band are seen alongside pages from Mothersbaugh’s notebooks, which have been compulsively filled with collaged and drawn images and text. On one wall hangs photographs of Kent State, where Mothersbaugh and his friends began DEVO in the early 1970s, and where, of course, the infamous protests of 1970 ended with the Ohio National Guard opening fire on a group of unarmed students. This alarming nugget of American history crosses over with the experience that Mothersbaugh and his fellow peers shared during that time. It was partially the shootings at Kent State that contributed to the formation of the Dada-inspired stylings of DEVO. DEVO began with the idea of “de-volution”—the idea that instead of progressing or evolving forward, humankind (and in particular, American society) is declining and moving in a backward direction. DEVO used music, performance, video, and costume to advance their bizarre and critical vision of the world. Dressing in identical futuristic-industrial outfits or donning strange hats and masks, DEVO put forth a strand of music that, with its synth-heavy melodies, was at once catchy and incredibly biting.

DEVO – October 16th, 1981. University of Illinois, Chicago. Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Photo: Paul Natkin/WireImage.com.

DEVO – October 16th, 1981. University of Illinois, Chicago. Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Photo: Paul Natkin/WireImage.com.

While early performance videos, music “films,” and other DEVO-related ephemera build an introduction to Mothersbaugh’s work and outlook, the revelatory parts of the exhibition exist in the subsequent galleries. In one room are shelves lined with small, delicate daguerreotypes in intricate Victorian frames. Close inspection of these tiny marvels reveals distorted images: The original photographs have been halved and mirrored, creating alien visages and surreal poses. Mirroring, repeating, inverting, distorting, multiplying—these all serve as guiding impulses within Mothersbaugh’s works and play off of the idea of imperfect vision that anchors the exhibition. The title, Myopia, stems from Mothersbaugh’s visual experiences (his thick signature glasses make him easy to pick out in any DEVO photo, despite the identical outfits), while also elevating what some would see as a flaw into something magically generative. What is begun in the daguerreotypes is repeated on a larger scale with Mutatum (2012), a hypnagogically altered vehicle that has no front, only two perfectly identical, seamlessly fused sets of back hatches, doors, and wheels. This funhouse mirroring is seen again in the horselike figure My Little Pony (2013) that occupies a clump of grass in the cartoonish scenes built around the museum’s rounded atrium.

Mark Mothersbaugh. Anita’s First Boyfriend, 2004; corrected photograph; edition of 20; 11 x 11 in. Courtesy of the artist and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Mark Mothersbaugh. Anita’s First Boyfriend, 2004; corrected photograph; edition of 20; 11 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

In the next gallery, the sources of the sporadic whistles, bings, and honks that casually filter through the other rooms are discovered. Four semi-sculptural structures—each a bit different than the other—are cobbled together from pieces of metal, PVC, and wooden organ pipes, along with bits of mechanical doorbells, whistles, wires, and electronics. These orchestral sculptures play a series of lilting, abstract compositions by Mothersbaugh. As their choreographed noises beep, ping, and weave through and around these structures, the marvel of these intricate, complex inventions captivates viewers.

Mark Mothersbaugh. The General, 2014; vintage organ pipes, electronics, and steel; 96 x 87 x 87 in. Courtesy of the artist and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Mark Mothersbaugh. The General, 2014; vintage organ pipes, electronics, and steel; 96 x 87 x 87 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Mothersbaugh’s obsessive, amazing brain is reflected even further in the understated installation of two complementary film scores, heard through headphones. On one side of the mirrored pedestal is a song that Mothersbaugh composed for the soundtrack to The Royal Tenenbaums, a Wes Anderson classic. On the other side is a composition for another Anderson film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There are similarities in the two songs, but their connection is elucidated through explanatory text: The song for The Life Aquatic is played from the inverted score for the other. Here again we see mirroring—a distorted, backward reading of an original—used as a spark to create something new.

The most somber room within Myopia is nonetheless full of boundless creative energy. Large, low platforms are gridded with an orderly array of books with plastic pages, containing thousands of postcards on which Mothersbaugh has written, pasted, painted, and drawn over in the past decades. The room is an archive of the artist’s daily habit of composing these small, portable artworks. Mothersbaugh would make at least one postcard work a day, though often—when the DEVO was on tour, for instance—he might do many more. These illustrations, textual fragments, and collaged images become nonlinear diaries of the artist’s extraordinary mind.

Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia is on view at Minneapolis Institute of Arts through August 30, 2015.

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