Northeast Ohio native and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh’s homecoming marked by his multidimensional ‘Myopia,’ on view at both MOCA Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum
By Carlo Wolff
Mark Mothersbaugh and his friend, Jerry Casale, talked music and tried to make sense of a broken world after the Ohio National Guard fatally shot four of their fellow Kent State University students on May 4, 1970.
The killings unnerved Mothersbaugh, an Akron native who’d done his fair share of Vietnam War protest. Both he and Ravenna man Casale were visual art students at Kent State, and both were interested in pop culture. Their most famous product, which the two helped form in the early 1970s, was the rock group Devo.
“I still have nightmares and daydreams about Akron,” Mothersbaugh says, evoking the early Northeast Ohio underground rock scene. “But Cleveland also represents our first foray into the world, getting in a car with some amps in the back seat and driving up to the Flats and going to Pirate’s Cove and going, ‘Omigosh, who’s this band Pere Ubu? Who are these people?’
“These guys are kindred souls,” he recalls thinking. “Finding out there’s somebody called Rocket from the Tombs, the Dead Boys … we were all still under the gravity of Ohio, all of us. And Akron is kind of a Cleveland wannabe (in) the same way Cleveland, when I was a kid, was kind of a Detroit wannabe. Akron always wanted to be as cool as Cleveland.”
Both Ohio cities are cool for Mothersbaugh these days. His impact on pop culture – by no means exclusively musical – will be on display in “Myopia,” a precedent-setting solo retrospective coming in late May to both the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum.
Mothersbaugh’s musical heritage will be the focus at MOCA Cleveland. The show will spotlight experimentation, performance and sound, including documentation of Devo’s first performance and Mothersbaugh’s experimentation with manipulated musical instruments.
Simultaneously, the Akron Art Museum will spotlight his career in the visual arts, including recent sculpture, rugs and a collection of 30,000 postcard-sized drawings.
Seeing both – discounted tickets will be good at both institutions – is highly recommended. Mothersbaugh, who was extremely near-sighted as a child, is a protean artist with a ridiculously multifaceted solo career; the younger generation is more likely to know him for his non-Devo work.
“He is made of creativity,” Megan Lykins Reich, deputy director of programs and engagement at MOCA Cleveland, says of Mothersbaugh. “He can pull everything off,” she adds, noting her conversations with Mothersbaugh start in one place and end up somewhere totally unexpected. “How did I get here? Where am I?” Reich asks herself after a phone engagement with Mothersbaugh. “He’s so creative and so gracious with it.”
“He is a creative genius,” concurs Mark Masuoka, executive director of the Akron Art Museum. “When people get a chance to experience the visual arts portion of the exhibition, they will truly understand how amazing he is, especially as a visual artist.
“He’s touched our lives and we don’t even know it,” Masuoka adds, noting the Akron Art Museum plans to work with Mothersbaugh after “Myopia” ends its local run.
“This is very much a homecoming for me,” Mothersbaugh says of “Myopia” in a freewheeling, hour-long interview from Mutato Muzika, his Hollywood-based music production company. “Whether anybody’s aware of me or of Devo, we’re very much stamped with Ohio, so we are considered emissaries by everybody else even if you guys (Northeast Ohio residents) don’t think so. To come back and do the show here to me has such a nice feeling. It’s like bringing it all back home in a literal sense.”
“Home” was scary to this peace-loving Ohio boy at Kent State at the dawn of the ’70s. “I just couldn’t for the life of me think of anybody I would shoot with a gun or blow up with a bomb,” he says. “How do you keep making progress in a good way? Who changes things?”
One way is advertising. Another is art.
Around that turbulent time, Burger King ran a commercial using Pachelbel’s “Canon,” a famous baroque organ piece. Mothersbaugh evokes it by singing “hold the pickles,” bemoaning how “they took a beautiful piece of music and turned it into a burger commercial.” He deplored the cultural predation but admired the sophistication.
“The kind of music was important because the way they used music, it was a subversive delivery system,” and not good for you, he says. “Then you saw within minutes they sell you sugar with bubbles for 75 cents or a dollar and you’ve got a can of gook. And they look so happy.” He thought advertising techniques “were really sophisticated and interesting and much more powerful than the very naïve idea of hippies to hold a sign up and think somebody cares.”
So he began to look for the right way to close the gap between spirituality and science and between the synthetic and the authentic. And with Casale and Mothersbaugh’s brothers Jim and Bob, all devotees of 20th century Pop Art, all came together as the musical group Devo. Punk, new wave, experimental, rock – Devo was all of the above. Its heyday was the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, it was an early, prominent presence in the Cleveland-Akron underground music scene, and it scored a big hit in 1980 with “Whip It,” a very catchy, hot piece of synth pop.
“In the 40 years that have transpired since then (the founding of Devo, which he dates to 1974), I’ve remained a gallery and museum exhibiting visual artist,” Mothersbaugh says. “But because of the high visibility of both Devo and working in the entertainment industry, you wouldn’t know that I’ve scored about 140 movies, television shows and video games.”
He has written scores for Rugrats movies and Wes Anderson films; for TV shows from “Hotel Malibu” to “Big Love”; and for video games including “Crash Bandicoot” and “The Sims 2.”
Mothersbaugh’s experience with the corporate record business left a bad taste, so he went on his own as a visual artist, securing art shows all over the world by contacting smaller galleries that advertised in the avant-garde magazine Juxtapoz and pricing his work, like low-edition multiple prints, “so first-time art buyers could say, ‘Hmm, will I buy a keg of beer for my party or buy my first piece of art?’”
His smaller shows “would always be with people who were really in love with art,” he says. “I really thought museums were these big, well-funded creampuff projects for the rich and I discounted them until through Adam Lerner (curator of the original “Myopia,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver), I started seeing the mechanisms by which they work.
“I realized these big museums with beautiful buildings and really nice collections of art are kind of more like an NPR station, constantly hustling to keep going through next year to keep the lights on.
“This project has changed my respect and certainly my level of knowledge about how museums work,” he added, noting that with its Northeast Ohio double play, “Myopia” will have been in four museums now, “and they’re all different but the thing they have in common is the crews,” aspiring artists or simply people who “just love the joy of being that third party to the triangle: The artist, the art work and the audience.”
“I find these people at museums that are incredibly inspiring to me,” he said.
Akron “is a beautiful museum. If you like the show in Cleveland, you should really just go to give it a shot. Maybe we can figure out a way to get us there. Or we could all walk there. I need the exercise.”
“What better way for us to welcome him back, celebrate his art and celebrate him?” says the Akron Art Museum’s Masuoka. “That’s really what the exhibition is about, but also I think it’s a sort of poignant statement about his creativity and that he is an amazing artist.”
The joint show promises to be exceptional, suggests MOCA Cleveland’s Reich. Not only will the displays showcase a protean pop-culture figure, they represent the first time the two institutions have worked together.
“(Mothersbaugh) is the exemplary kind of contemporary artist, working in a hybrid way across many disciplines successfully without hesitation, and able to carry on a consistent aesthetic across these different practices,” says Reich, noting the “Myopia” show in Cleveland will feature a Scion car with two back sides and “sculptural instruments” Mothersbaugh calls Orchestrions. “Everything he does is very ‘Mark’ in this palpable, incredible way.” CV
MOCA Cleveland: May 27 – Aug. 28
A free opening night party and concert will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. May 27 on Toby’s Plaza outside of MOCA Cleveland. Mark Mothersbaugh will be on hand to perform on his six-sided keyboard, followed by a Mothersbaugh DJ set. For more information, call 216-421-8671 or visit mocacleveland.org.
Akron Art Museum: May 29 – Aug. 28
An Artist Talk with Mark Mothersbaugh and Adam Lerner will be held at 2 p.m. May 28 at the Akron-Summit County Public Library. A free opening party will immediately follow from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Akron Art Museum. For more information, call 330-376-9185 or visit akronartmuseum.org.