A handsome new book edited by museum curator Adam Lerner celebrates the life and times—and the visual artistry—of the DEVO co-founder. “I was the different one,” he notes.
BY FRED MILLS
One of the very first promotional records I received, back when I was but an aspiring fanzine-scribbler, was DEVO’s self-released 1977 debut “Jocko Homo” b/w “Mongoloid.” In addition to the record’s synapse-curdling twists and conceptual teases, the seven-inch 45’s sleeve graphics caught my attention just as profoundly, and even though the design was credited collectively to the band, there’s no question that Mark Mothersbaugh was largely behind those visuals. One might say that Mothersbaugh was partly responsible for this young spudboy’s cultural (de)evolution as I embarked upon an as-yet-unfinished journey as a rock writer.
Revisiting scores of DEVO-related graphics—along with hundreds more culled from Mothersbaugh’s 40-year tenure as an artist, designer, musician and film/TV scorer—now via Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia (Princeton Architectural Press), a handsome 256pp hardbound volume, I’m struck by just how influential he must have been over the years. He was key in coming up with much of the DEVO visual iconography, from the signature yellow haz-mat suits and flowerpot/”energy dome” hats to his Booji Boy full-head mask (which Mothersbaugh found at a thrift store while an art student at Kent State University in the early/mid ‘70s) and the band’s occasional donning of identical masks and hairpieces (part of a theme of repetition that would recur throughout his career). Mothersbaugh’s since contributed to the video and kid’s TV world—notably the Rugrats cartoons and, more recently, Yo Gabba Gabba—and taken part in numerous art exhibitions, showing such intriguing contraptions as his music-generating “Orchestrions” and ceramic creations, dubbed “Roli Polis,” that resemble tubby little men with the heads of babies. No less an artist than Shepard Fairey contributes a testimonial/appreciation in the book, writing:
“Mothersbaugh takes art—but not the rules of the art world or the world at large—seriously. The elitist art-world model is quickly becoming obsolete as barriers erode between high and low culture. I think Mothersbaugh has embraced de-evolution viscerally and intellectually by shrewdly speaking the language of pop culture while adding subversive layers underneath.”
Indeed. In his own opening essay, editor Adam Lerner (director of Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art) proposes that Mothersbaugh “finds freedom by inventing imaginary worlds that hold a mirror to the one that everyone else inhabits,” which is essentially the definition of a true artist. A good portion of the book is devoted to documenting DEVO’s early days and is accordingly manna for longtime fans (for example, a handful of early ‘70s photos of Mothersbaugh and eventual band co-founder Jerry Casale show them presciently attired, with Mothersbaugh already rocking that Booji Boy mask). But much of the accompanying text is aimed at analyzing the actual art and concepts that underlie the band’s music and activities, additionally placing DEVO in the larger art world—such as the avant garde and Dada movements that influenced a young Mothersbaugh—context. The fact that someone of Neil Young’s stature would borrow from DEVO, via a comment from Mothersbaugh where he observed that “rust never sleeps,” is of no small significance.
From there the narrative moves forward, detailing in both images and text the aforementioned Roli Polis and Orchestrions as well as Mothersbaugh’s famous “postcard art” (which is exactly what the description implies) and his “Beautiful Mutants” series of digitally manipulated mirrored images (the young lad titled “Nubest Boy” has an unsettling Children of the Damned air about him; an otherwise normal snapshot of a young girl leaning forward becomes the creepily smiling circus freak named “Daddy’s Little Sideshow”). In addition to Lerner and Fairey’s contributions there are essays by art history professor Maria Elena Buszek, gallery curator Steven Wolf, museum curatorial assistant Sonya Falcone and art critic Cary Levine; filmmaker Wes Anderson pens the foreword. Lerner also conducted a number of interviews with Mothersbaugh over the course of a couple years, and excerpts from those conversations comprise pages 31-52 of the book. (“I was the kid who got his ass kicked all the time” in school, Mothersbaugh recalls in one chat, adding in a masterpiece of understatement, “I was the different one.”)
All in all, Myopia perfectly straddles the worlds of rock ‘n’ roll and visual art and is a delight; I say this as a music person who is notoriously non-visually oriented (during my fanzine days I always left the graphics and layouts to someone else). Like I said above, DEVO devotees will get a massive treat; cue up some vintage live bootlegs while you absorb it. For those of you with even just a smattering of art training or appreciation, it’ll be an eye-opener.