The day Mark Mothersbaugh was fitted for his iconic Coke-bottle glasses was the day that changed his life. He was seven years old. And when he peered at that jumbled eye chart across the room, the doctor discovered something: Mothersbaugh was legally blind.
"I remember the day that I came out of the optometrist with my first pair of glasses," says the Devo frontman who has pulled an Elfman-like resurrection as a film-score composer. "It blew me away." Until then, Mothersbaugh had never seen anything that was more than six inches away from him. Now, quite suddenly, there was a world. "I saw houses, and roofs of houses. Smoke coming out of chimneys. I’d never seen clouds, I’d never seen the sun. I’d never seen birds flying. I saw telephone wires. I got really excited about it."
In celebration, he started drawing. ("I drew trees. Previously trees were something I just ran into the trunks of.") And thus began the visual-art career of a man who’s known best for his music. Later, at Kent State, Mothersbaugh drank deep from Dada and surrealism, and found art. He fed off the omnivorous conceptual wranglings of Andy Warhol. And he’s since built a hefty oeuvre of tiny masterpieces, comprising not just illustrations and screen prints but works in unorthodox media like decals, rubber-stamp designs, and mail art (he’s crafted at least one postcard image nearly every day for more than three decades, sending them to friends around the world).
The Paradise Lounge Gallery is no stranger to musicians with a jones for visual art, and to celebrate its third anniversary it’s exhibiting a mother lode of Mothersbaugh. "Beautiful Mutants" is a show of lovingly distorted photos of sepia-toned freaks. They’re looking for a home, and chances are you can afford one. True to the gallery’s mission, this is yet another in a long line of exhibits aimed at cash-poor folks with a yen for great art.
"Mutants have always been dear to the heart of Devo. One of our earliest influences was the original Island of Lost Souls," Mothersbaugh says from his Los Angeles studio. (The title of the band’s first record, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, is drawn from a chant in the film.) In the movie, of course, animals are taken to Dr. Moreau’s House of Pain, where they’re vivisected and mutilated until they come to resemble humans. "The whole thing was frightening and unnatural and disturbing."
So it is with Mothersbaugh’s "Beautiful Mutants," which takes a treasure trove of daguerreotypes bought at auctions and flea markets over the years — as well as some antiqued photos of Mothersbaugh’s own family — and transforms them, splitting them down the middle until left and right sides are identical.
"We’re basically bilateral," he says. "Inside we’re semi-symmetrical: two lungs, two kidneys, two ovaries, two testicles. But I started realizing how unsymmetrical we really were when I started playing with mirrors, looking at half of a face, and half of another face. I became mesmerized by the fact that you can take a human’s face and split it in half. If you mirror one side of it, it tends to the be the prettier side, or the lighter side. If you mirror the other side, it tends to be less esthetically pleasing, sometimes more malevolent-looking."
In a way, these bilateral visages work like Rorschach inkblots, onto which we might project our own neuroses. As Mothersbaugh says in his artist’s statement: "People are all hiding something.... Our asymmetrical exterior hides the true contents of each of us." So he "corrects" the photographs to make them perfectly symmetrical — a task that he at first tried to do using mirrors and kaleidoscopic camera lenses, but now does on computer.
The results are striking. Some are whimsical. Some look almost normal, but closer inspection reveals that something’s just not quite right. Some are deeply unsettling. Two flaxen-haired girls pet a fawn-like creature with no head, just spindly legs and two rounded rumps. A fair-faced boy in a sailor suit is handsome (perhaps his face is a bit wide) until you notice his torso tapers and ends, hovering, at the waist. In one, an onyx-eyed baby’s head lies still in a frilly basinet, light seeming to issue forth from a wedge splitting it at top.
Of all the prints at the Paradise, "Posies for Mother" is one of the strangest: a little girl turning bell-shaped and sprouting a third eye as the flowers she holds spring forward. In "Anita’s First Boyfriend," a handsome youth becomes a caricature, his pomaded hair ballooning his head into a heart shape, his tiny, puckered mouth resembling a navel. "Bride in the Vestibule" could easily be a harmless post-war wedding photo, until closer examination reveals just how thin her stock-straight body is, and how wide the smile is on her too-perfect face.
Mothersbaugh says his inspiration came from playing with mirrors when he was younger. "I always loved fish-eye lenses. It came from how radical my [eyeglass] prescription was. It wasn’t until someone dropped LSD on me back in the early ’70s that, all of a sudden, I realized again what my prescription did to my vision. I was always looking into these extreme-convex lenses my whole life."
And while he recognizes these are hardly masterpieces, there’s no denying their visceral power to jar our senses. "It’s a sophomoric, stupid thing from a technical standpoint. Not much more complicated than erasing pupils in a magazine and making the person cross-eyed, or adding horns. But I couldn’t shake the fact that I kept doing it every day."
ART AND ROCK TOGETHER
In 2002, when the front room of the Paradise transformed from M-80, a dance club for the filthy-rich and Euro-students, to the Paradise Lounge, a low-key, rock-friendly room with a small stage and tall walls, Ami Bennitt saw an opportunity. She was managing Mikey Welsh (late of Weezer and the Kickovers) at the time, and he was looking for a place to exhibit his muscular and colorful abstract paintings for the first time.
The fit made sense. The show was a success. The rest is history. Three years later, Bennitt curates six to eight exhibits a year. The openings are free, and the art is affordable. "It’s pop art, it’s street art, it’s outsider art," Bennitt says. "It’s the antithesis of walking up and down Newbury Street. It’s not for people who go to galleries, it’s for rock people, and people who want to be exposed to art who otherwise wouldn’t be."
That art has included everything from concert-poster prints by local guys like Phoenix illustrator Mark Reusch and Helms drummer Dan McCarthy, to the work of underground populist Steve Keene, whose slapdash, assembly-line paintings usually go for about 10 bucks each. The gallery has also shown big names, like Mekons frontman Jon Langford’s weather-beaten portraits of country-music icons, or charcoal rubbings by Mission of Burma’s Roger Miller.
For his part, Mothersbaugh says the Paradise Lounge Gallery has a leg up on the spaces he usually shows in. "I like galleries that are connected to the street, galleries that would tend to put off a lawyer or an accountant who are just trying to put together a portfolio so they can double their money in the art market. I tend to look for the galleries that attract a younger, more excitable audience that tend to love art because it exists." Coupling its commitment to populist art with the staying power lent to it by one of the country’s legendary rock clubs, the Paradise Lounge Gallery is a rare breed. We’re lucky to have it.
Alas, that doesn’t necessarily mean Mothersbaugh will be showing up at his own opening. Five weeks ago, he and his wife flew to China to adopt a 14-month-old girl. He’s since had to reschedule several Devo dates, and seems doubtful he’ll be able to make the trip east. "If my wife is brave enough to get on the plane, I’ll do it. But if not, I’ll have to stay home and take my turn at diaper changing," he says. "But we might do a video conference. I’ll change a diaper on screen, and you guys can see what color shit she had that day."
Now that’s art.
"Beautiful Mutants" hangs at the Paradise Lounge Gallery, 969 Comm Ave in Boston, from October 20 through November 27. There will be an opening reception on Thursday, October 20, from 7 pm to 9 pm. For more info visit http://www.mutato.com/beautifulmutants.
Issue Date: October 21 - 27, 2005
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