Akron2

Its past forged by industry, the Rubber City seeks to sculpt its future through arts and culture

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz
Illustration by Stephen Valentine

Northeast Ohioans are familiar with Akron’s reputation as the Rubber Capital of the World. It’s a moniker that hearkens back to the days when trucking, then war and then automobiles fueled America’s need for things like tires, boots and innovative applications of rubber – and in the process employed generations of Akronites.

The days when machinery churned day and night and the unmistakable smell of rubber hung in the air are gone, but the city – with good reason – is proud of its lunch-pail past. However, it’s just that: the past.

Arts and culture have been part of the next chapter for Akron and surrounding Summit County communities for some time now, but in 2014, a report comprehensively detailing the art scene’s strengths and weaknesses brought greater focus to efforts that would increase their role.

Momentum surrounding the city’s future as an arts hub has been building ever since, which is something fewer Northeast Ohioans – at least those around Greater Cleveland – may be familiar with than Akron’s industrial past.

“Akron and Summit County are in such an interesting and exciting place,” says Nicole Mullet, executive director of ArtsNow, a nonprofit designed to connect arts, culture and community in Summit County. “We’re deciding the narrative we’re going to tell about ourselves moving forward, and I think the arts and culture community is going to be a driving force in how we tell that story.”

Organizationally speaking

Summit Artspace in downtown Akron offers gallery, studio and office space to local artists and arts organizations.

Summit Artspace in downtown Akron offers gallery, studio and office space to local artists and arts organizations.

ArtsNow was founded in 2015 as a result of that 2014 report, the Arts & Culture Assessment for Summit County, which was based on resident surveys, interviews of institutional leaders and a number of community meetings.

Among the report’s findings were a lack of clear leadership in the arts and culture community and a lack of coordinated communication regarding programming available to residents.

“We knew there was no lack of things going on, but perhaps there was a lack of understanding about what was going on,” Mullet concedes.

Enter ArtsNow and SummitLive365.com, created by ArtsNow to serve as a one-stop shop for anyone interested in the arts by offering events listings, a directory of institutions, artist profiles, educational opportunities and even a classifieds section to help artists find employment or commissions.

ArtsNow is also invested in helping artists as entrepreneurs, and it partners with local corporations – among them some of those rubber companies that still call Akron home – to help employees and their families get the most out Summit County’s arts and culture offerings.

While downtown Akron can literally and figuratively be considered the center of Summit County’s arts scene, Mullet is quick to point to a strong supporting cast, including: Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood, home to annual festivals of creativity like PorchRokr and Square Fest; Akron’s Merriman Valley neighborhood, a gateway to Cuyahoga Valley National Park and home to Weathervane Playhouse and none too fragile theater; Barberton, where a growing arts district includes Nine Muses Art Gallery and the Art Center on Tuscarawas; and Cuyahoga Falls, where Front Street is home to Studio 2091 Mothersbaugh and Cuyahoga Valley Art Center.

“It’s truly a community that’s growing and learning together. It’s a group of people who are very much in it together to see the arts sector thrive in Summit County,” she says. “It’s a very healthy landscape for arts and culture right now, so it’d be wonderful if people from Cleveland took the very short trip down (Interstate) 77 to check us out.”

Anchor institution

Akron Art Museum

Akron Art Museum

From her vantage point as Akron Art Museum’s director of education, Alison Caplan senses the same positive momentum Mullet does.

“I think there’s a new vibrancy and interest in the arts downtown – and throughout Akron and Summit County,” she says. “I feel like (the museum is) a connecting place for people, whether you’re an art maker or someone who wants to plug in to activities.”

As one of the biggest players in Akron’s art scene, the museum is well positioned to better connect with the community. It’s been doing so through its Free Thursdays, when no admission fee and later hours are meant to make it easier for people to visit; its Inside|Out program, in which prints of works from the museum’s permanent collection are erected in various neighborhoods in the county; and its new Bud and Susie Rogers Garden, an inviting space that opened in July that can host exhibition opening receptions and other events. Currently in the works is an arts library in collaboration with its downtown neighbor, the Akron-Summit County Public Library.

“It will contain original works of art from artists in the region that people will be able to check out for three to four weeks and hang on their wall,” Caplan says. “The idea is that you don’t have to be a well-off person to collect art works from artists in our region, that there are so many ways you can participate in the local arts economy.”

“Single Elvis” by Andy Warhol was on view during the summer at the Firestone Park branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Akron as part of the Akron Art Museum’s Inside|Out program.

“Single Elvis” by Andy Warhol was on view during the summer at the Firestone Park branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Akron as part of the Akron Art Museum’s Inside|Out program.

Caplan also feels it’s important for the museum to flex its artistic muscle to attract national and international figures to the region, which it did recently when it hosted Theaster Gates, an acclaimed artist, musician, community organizer, urban planner and cultural entrepreneur from Chicago.

“We brought him here to lead conversations with the community, so I think besides being local and working with local groups, we also try to think globally,” Caplan says. “I think sometimes we get into a bubble in Akron, where we love local things and local things are awesome, but if we bring in an artist to work on a mural from Chicago, that’s really amazing because that artist can hire out local artists to contribute, and they learn from that experience – and it’ll bring more people into the community to see the works.”

Overall, Caplan feels Akron’s art scene is “pretty accessible,” pointing to the monthly Downtown Akron Art Walk (first Saturdays) and the artwork that’s popped up in and around the Summit Metro Parks and Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And like Mullet, she says it’s accessible to those from Greater Cleveland, too.

“I think there’s a stigma with driving to Akron, which is crazy,” says Caplan, who speaks from experience as a former Case Western Reserve University grad student. “I’ve lived in Cleveland, and if you drive from the East Side to the West Side, you’re pretty much going to spend as much time in your car, so it’s really not as far as you think it is to Akron.”

Gallery perspective

Sculptor Don Drumm stands outside his Akron studio and gallery.

Sculptor Don Drumm stands outside his Akron studio and gallery.

If anyone can offer a long, profound perspective on Akron’s art scene, it’s Don Drumm, whose prolific career as an artist and craftsman spans decades.

Drumm was born in Warren and earned his art degrees from Kent State University. He met his wife Lisa, then an arts teacher at the University of Akron, in 1958, and he opened his first studio in Akron in 1960.

“We were sort of the first who attempted to earn a living full-time as practicing artists in the city,” Drumm recalls.

In 1970, the couple opened a new studio on Crouse Street, just south of The University of Akron. In 1971, they made part of the studio a gallery, and the enterprise has been growing ever since. Today, there’s a veritable village of Drumm buildings on Crouse – eight, all told, painted in yellows, purples and greens and adorned by his trademark suns – giving visitors the sense they’re in for a unique experience.

Along the way, he pioneered the use of cast aluminum as an artistic medium and has flourished as a sculptor. His work can be seen publicly via the number of commissions he’s completed or privately in the homes of generations of Akronites who’ve received one of his pieces as a wedding gift or birthday present.

Drumm doesn’t consider himself to be a good teacher – “I prefer to create” – but he values education, and thinks it’s important to Akron’s future in the arts.

The Drumms established the Don and Lisa Drumm Endowed Scholarship to support graduates of the Akron Public School System entering The University of Akron’s School of Art. He’d also like to see universities like Akron and Kent State offer artists-to-be more diversified training so that as gallery owners like him age out (he’s 81), there will be a new generation of business-savvy artists to solidify the scene’s future.

“Akron U. has a law school, an engineering school, business – all these things would help young artists. They could do some seminars with them or what have you. At least by the time they get to their senior year, if they’re going to practice, they’ve got to know about these things,” he says. “You don’t just go out, if you’re a potter and start potting, and say ‘Here I am’ because nobody will hear you. You have to go knocking on doors.”

Drumm points to Summit Artspace – a community arts center in downtown Akron that to some extent, provides business and marketing training for artists – as one of the “great things” about the city’s art scene.

Toby Ann Weber, Summit Artspace board chair, says that following that 2014 report, the entity that oversaw Summit Artspace, the Akron Area Arts Alliance, conducted a self-assessment in an effort to better serve the community. One of its findings was that it was underutilizing its best asset – its building, a three-story structure just around the corner from the Akron Art Museum that once was home to the Akron Beacon Journal.

Since then, AAAA shifted its strategic direction to focus more on Summit Artspace than on some of its other endeavors. While not formally an incubator, the building now does more to serve as a place for artists to lease studio space, for organizations to rent office space, and for various entities to host workshops or educational training. Of course there’s also space to showcase art, from the first-floor gallery to just about any hallway, corner or landing available.

“There’s a lot more art in the building,” Weber says. “We’re serving a lot more artists by putting their work up everywhere we can.”

Summit Artspace is more than just a resource for artists. In 2017, it’s scheduled to host eight shows in its gallery, all of which will have programming meant to engage audiences – like panels, lectures and workshops – associated with them. Summit Artspace is also home to Crafty Mart, an indie handmade marketplace, and is one of the largest stops on the Downtown Akron Art Walk.

Further, Summit Artspace recently took over administrative control of Nine Muses and ACoT in Barberton, which Weber feels will provide more coordinated programming between two artistic outposts that are only about 10 miles apart – another signal that Akron’s art scene is coming together and growing.

“There’s certainly a lot more energy, visibility and connectivity among the artist and arts organizations – and our funders are making investments in the arts, which is great to see,” Weber says, adding that changes at Summit Artspace have paralleled those in Akron’s larger arts scene. “If you were in the building two years ago, you wouldn’t recognize it now. There’s a lot more activity. Come and check it out.” CV

Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle Jimmy Kuehnle’s latest work, “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle,” will be on view in the Akron Art Museum’s Beatrice Knapp McDowell Grand Lobby and the Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation Gallery through Feb. 19, 2017. For more information, call 330-376-9185 or visit akronartmuseum.org.

Through performance and installations, Jimmy Kuehnle’s art elicits interaction and participation

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

“Please, No Smash” (2015) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland; kinetic inflatable. Courtesy of the artist.

“Please, No Smash” (2015) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland; kinetic inflatable. Courtesy of the artist.

About halfway through the installation of his latest work of art – a large-scale, red inflatable called “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” – Jimmy Kuehnle realizes he’s going to have to crawl into his creation to make a couple of adjustments.

When fully inflated, this part of the installation will occupy a sizable portion of the Akron Art Museum’s Beatrice Knapp McDowell Grand Lobby, serving as both a welcoming beacon to passersby through the entryway’s floor-to-ceiling windows, and jutting out over the doorway, a greeter to museum visitors.

This day’s snags involve a strand of lights that got tangled inside the polyester piece following a previous install attempt as well as a pair of scissors that had somehow slipped inside, visible only after Kuehnle and his crew of seven had pulled, pushed and lifted “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” into place and had it partially inflated.

Neither that physicality nor making such adjustments are unique to Kuehnle’s art – he and his team once donned scuba gear in an attempt to make adjustments to an inflatable installation in a museum pond – but the level of involvement in erecting his site-specific pieces hints at the level of participation he hopes to draw out of museumgoers. In fact, the second part of “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” is an inflatable labyrinth in the Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation Gallery that visitors can feel and squeeze their way through.

“I don’t want you to think the museum is only a reverent place,” Kuehnle says, speaking generally. “I mean, museums are rad, and I like them, but you can run and jump in a museum as long as you don’t damage the really nice things.”

It’s meant to be fun, and the 37-year-old Cleveland Heights artist appears to have fun in the process. He relishes his role, which toggles between construction site foreman during installation and lead singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band during an opening reception. For the opening night of “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle,” he’ll be wearing a suit he made for himself out of the same red polyester that comprises his art. Slipping into character is part of the Jimmy Kuehnle experience.

“I’m very happy, and I think it’s going to work out great,” he says following installation, adding that he welcomes the challenges of the process. “That’s kind of the fun part. My dream is to come up with the ideas, then get to play builder until I get tired of it.”

Learning opportunities

Top: Jimmy Kuehnle wears “You Wear What I Wear” in 2009 in Chicago. Courtesy of the artist.

Top: Jimmy Kuehnle wears “You Wear What I Wear” in 2009 in Chicago. Courtesy of the artist.

Drawing, making, tinkering – these were activities Kuehnle’s family encouraged in him as a kid.

“My parents gave me and my siblings masking tape, markers and scissors every Christmas. I would run out of those really fast and raid my dad’s drafting table for more stuff,” he says, adding that art was something he knew he wanted to do from an early age.

Kuehnle was born in Atlanta, where his father, James, now retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, met his mother, Christine, a former nurse and human resource specialist. When he was 3, the family moved to St. Louis, where he spent the remainder of his childhood, along with younger siblings Liz and Will.

His high school art program allowed him to flourish, he says, but when it came time for college, he didn’t want to go to art school. Instead, he enrolled at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., about 200 miles northwest of St. Louis.

“A small town of 16,000 meant there wasn’t much of a contemporary art scene, so I didn’t have any aspirations or even know what contemporary art was,” he says. “My friends and I would take field trips to Chicago and New York to go see galleries, but we didn’t know what we were doing.”

It was that “naive experience of art” that led Kuehnle and his friends to found the Tom Thumb Gallery, an alternative space – set up in the house they were renting – where they hoped to create chaos. Activities included Improve the Art nights, where attendees were given bottles of spray paint to use to upgrade bad art, and events at which participants could swing at old TVs and other technology with sledgehammers.

Tom Thumb represents an early example of Kuehnle’s penchant for participatory art. It engaged people in ways that existing art institutions hadn’t, not only for students, but also for the art faculty who eventually attended. Once, even the provost stopped by, and now some 20 years later, the gallery still exists at Truman State. It’s a Kuehnle legacy.

“That really gave us a taste for, ‘Wow, if you do art, other people enjoy it.’ As primitive as that experience was, that’s how I got into studying art,” he says. “It was a lot of fun, and we learned a lot about organization and collaboration – all that stuff your faculty wants you to learn in your curriculum.”

After graduating in 2001 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture, Kuehnle went to Japan to teach English and make art. He returned stateside in 2004, and by 2006, he’d earned a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“I thought it might be interesting to teach art – I liked the teaching part, I just didn’t like teaching English – but little did I know that teaching in higher education is a hard job to get,” he said. “I got lucky.”

Kuehnle spent another year at UT as adjunct faculty before returning to Japan, this time as a Fulbright Graduate Research Fellow to research public art and practice sculpture. He then spent a couple of years “hopping around residencies and gaining experience in the studio and in exhibiting so that I had something to actually teach” before landing a job in 2010 as visiting assistant professor at the University of Alabama Huntsville.

He arrived in Northeast Ohio in 2011 after being hired as an assistant professor by the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he still teaches today.

Of bikes and suits

Kuehnle, center, during install “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” at the Akron Art Museum.

Kuehnle, center, during install “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” at the Akron Art Museum.

Performance is central to Kuehnle’s art, and early in his career, those performances took place on bicycles. Frames for the “F-Bike” and “ART Bike” spelled out messages for bystanders as he rode them around San Antonio wearing outlandish costumes he tailored for himself, and then there was “The Bike That Draws,” a Rube Goldberg machine on wheels that allows a second rider’s pedaling to draw a picture. That 2005 creation remains one of his favorites.

From there, Kuehnle transitioned to using cathode ray tube TVs – “because everyone was buying flat-screens and you could buy them for pennies on the dollar” – for video sculptures and installations. This phase was short-lived, however.

“I remember one time driving to Houston for an installation at Project Row Houses, and I had a trailer with plywood sides heaped over with televisions, video cameras and all this equipment, and I was like, just carrying it in to do the installation, ‘This is a lot of work.’ I thought that as an artist, I wouldn’t be digging ditches,” he quips.

Sewing costumes for bicycle performances eventually led Kuehnle to dabble in sewing together wearable inflatable suits, which were easier to transport – a relevant concern when he returned to Japan for his Fulbright.

“The original idea was to have these small, duffel bag-sized objects that were battery-powered and allowed me to pop out of a train station or hop off my bike and do a performance,” he says, equating his new approach to having a concert set list.

“Bands have a repertoire of albums and songs they can show up and play. It takes a lot of work to get there – they’ve done all this studio work – but then they have this finished product at any time,” he explains. “So, that was my way of having a song or an album.”

In that sense, Kuehnle is a one-man band while wearing his colorful, impossible-to-miss inflatable suits, but he says they take on their own personas.

“For example, ‘Big Red’ was this one I made in Japan, and I found out it liked to spin around in circles a lot, cross intersections diagonally and try to get into storefronts,” he says. “And since it would blow around in the wind so much, I made one smaller called ‘You Wear What I Wear,’ and it really likes to get inside different telephone poles or gas station pumps and smash into everything. It really enjoys going into spaces where people don’t expect it to come, and it can run really fast – so that one is a lot of fun.”

Kuehnle’s inflatables didn’t stay duffel bag-sized for long. By 2010, they’d become stationary – as public installations – and they’d grown.

They include “Amphibious Inflatable Suit” in 2014 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., a Loch Ness Monster-sized inflatable that resided in a pond and wasn’t a suit at all; “Please, No Smash” in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, which occupied MOCA’s four-story entryway; and “Tongue in Cheek” earlier this year at The Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y., a portion of which protruded from the tower windows of the museum’s Glenview Mansion.

Not wanting to lose the interactive nature of the suits, Kuehnle tries to surround his audience with his installations. He also incorporates kinetic elements – lights, sequencing, inflation/deflation – that in a sense transform his installations into living, breathing organisms, complete with an electronic pulse. It’s no surprise, then, that like with his suits, Kuehnle speaks of his installations as characters he created, not static sculptures.

“I think (Kuehnle) has a great deal of talent, and he’s wonderfully articulate about his ideas. His work is fun, interesting, challenging, it occupies considerable space, and it’s bright and colorful,” says Bruce Checefsky, gallery director at CIA’s Reinberger Gallery, where Kuehnle’s work has also been shown.

Kuehnle’s inflatables are reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg, Checefsky adds, referring to the sculptor best known for his public installations, including the “Free Stamp” sculpture in downtown Cleveland.

“He has this pedigree that reaches back to those Oldenburg sculptures, but also the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Checefsky says.

Forming relationships

Jimmy Kuehnle repairs a portion of "Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle" prior to installation at the Akron Art Museum.

Jimmy Kuehnle repairs a portion of “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” prior to installation at the Akron Art Museum.

Back at the Akron Art Museum, director of education Alison Caplan also connects Kuehnle to Oldenburg – not only in artistic form, but also in the way “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” and Oldenburg’s “Inverted Q” interact while sharing the museum’s lobby space.

Caplan also compliments Kuehnle’s ability to work within diverse architectural settings and to invite museumgoers to look, touch and participate.

“When people tend to think about contemporary art, they don’t think of it as playful or accessible to everyone, and he’s someone who breaks down that barrier,” she says. “People connect to the work through their body, their own sensibility and the materials he’s using. … They can connect in a joyful way.”

Other museums see the same qualities, as evidenced by Kuehnle’s string of recent exhibitions, all of which have come about, he says, from people just emailing him. In fact, he received another email not long ago and is already working out details of another commission for 2017 or 2018.

“I don’t know how to make more people do that,” he jokes, referring to the emails. “I’m at this weird place, but it keeps happening.”

Looking ahead, Kuehnle wants to continue working on inflatable installations in order to master the process – at least for now.

“I feel I have the suits down. It’s something formulaic that I can always revisit. I’m getting close – I’m not there yet, but I’m getting close – to figuring out how to do the installations,” he says. “There are still a lot of things I’m not satisfied with: kinetics, sequencing, ease of install. If I can figure those out, maybe in a couple of more iterations, I think then my mind might start drifting – but I’m still pretty fully engaged in the site-specific, large-scale installation work.”

Whatever comes next for Kuehnle, connecting with others is certain to be at the heart of it – as has consistently been the case for his kinetic installations, bicycle performances and inflatable suit performances.

“I want to disarm people. I want them to smile. I want people to talk to me in a way that gets a little beyond small talk – and that happens,” he says.

“When I’m struggling with the suits, there’s this symbiotic, emergent behavior with other pedestrians. Not everyone – some people just want you to get out of the way, but a lot of times there are people who want to help,” he continues. “You find they’re coming along with you the whole time, and I find that to be a successful piece – when you form another human relationship with somebody.” CV

On view

Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle

Jimmy Kuehnle’s latest work, “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle,” will be on view in the Akron Art Museum’s Beatrice Knapp McDowell Grand Lobby and the Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation Gallery through Feb. 19, 2017. For more information, call 330-376-9185 or visit akronartmuseum.org.

Square-dancing Roli Polis take the floor at the Akron Art Museum. PHOTO | Michael C. Butz

Mothersbaugh collaboration a work of art for MOCA Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum

By Carlo Wolff

An unprecedented collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum spotlights the protean Mark Mothersbaugh, an Akron boy who transcended the poor eyesight he was born with to become a polymath whose artwork spans rock ’n’ roll, rubber stamps, postcards, Victorian lockets bearing warped images, carpeting, video, soundtracks for film, jingles, sculpture and painting.

The Mothersbaugh exhibits, “Myopia,” run through Aug. 28 at both museums. The focus in Cleveland is music. In Akron, it’s graphics. Visit both museums for the whole picture. To get the idea, put the covers of the magazines each institution is handing out side-by-side to turn the halves of a Mothersbaugh drawing into one.

Opening parties in Cleveland May 27 and Akron May 28 preceded the forming of long lines of people eager to look inside Mothersbaugh’s buzzing mind.

The Cleveland party featured instrumental, “classical” Mothersbaugh compositions and a performance by Mothersbaugh. The following afternoon, he and Adam Lerner, who curated these displays, gave a talk at a Summit County Public Library branch. Lerner’s title is director and chief animator, department of fabrications, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, where the Mothersbaugh exhibition originated.

Mothersbaugh’s work packs humor, wit, irony, and often, a sense of despair. It can be both deliriously sensual and bilious, as “Ruby Kusturd,” a giant ruby atop a bronze base on exhibit in Cleveland, suggests. Even as it messes with your mind, it attests to an obsessiveness Mothersbaugh converts to astonishing creativity.

While he may be best known as the founder of the art-punk rock band Devo, Mothersbaugh also is an acclaimed visual artist who commandeers all kinds of media to present a weirdly familiar, weirdly disturbing view of a world pitting promise against peril, the synthetic against the authentic, technology against the organic.

Enter the Mueller Family Gallery at the top of MOCA Cleveland and you’ll see a visual palindrome: a foreshortened silver Scion xB with blackout windows, door handles on doors that can’t be opened, and two “tails.” Naturally, the license plate is “mutatum.”

Go to the Akron Art Museum and you’ll encounter two rooms with figures at rest on artificial grass. One features sinister/funny round-bottomed Roli Polis, painted differently, in apparent conversation and preparing to square dance. Another features what look like molars: three painted fiberglass sculptures that on closer inspection resemble the butts of horses.

Like the shows themselves, the Scion and the “molars” speak to Mothersbaugh’s unity of vision, the notion of duality — and to pause and purposelessness. The Scion isn’t going anywhere, and the molars, as molars should be, seem deeply rooted. CV

On view

WHAT: “Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia”

WHERE: Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland; Akron Art Museum, 1 S. High St., Akron.

WHEN: Through Aug. 28

TICKETS & INFO: MOCA Cleveland, 216-421-8671 or mocacleveland.org; Akron Art Museum, 330-376-9185 or akronartmuseum.org


Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 30, 2016.

“Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia,” 30,000 postcards, installation view. Photo: Trevor Brown. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

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

24 Nov 2014: Mark Mothersbaugh's Myopia exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, CO. ©Trevor Brown, Jr./Trevor Brown Photography

24 Nov 2014: Mark Mothersbaugh’s Myopia exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, CO. ©Trevor Brown, Jr./Trevor Brown Photography

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.”

“Mark Mothersbaugh,” self portrait. Courtesy of Mutato Muzika.

“Mark Mothersbaugh,” self portrait. Courtesy of Mutato Muzika.

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.

“Mark Mothersbaugh, Bulbous Politico Gets a Hand,” 2004, woven nylon fibers, 48 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Ron Pollard.

“Mark Mothersbaugh, Bulbous Politico Gets a Hand,” 2004, woven nylon fibers, 48 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Ron Pollard.

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.”

“DEVO.” Art Direction: David Allen. Backdrop silkscreen: Phyllis Cohen. Photo: Jules Bates.

“DEVO.” Art Direction: David Allen. Backdrop silkscreen: Phyllis Cohen. Photo: Jules Bates.

“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.”

“Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia,” Roli Polis installation view. Photo: Trevor Brown. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

“Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia,” Roli Polis installation view. Photo: Trevor Brown. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

“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

On view

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.