Those who are familiar with Mark Mothersbaugh most likely know his music. Those who aren’t familiar with the man, also most likely know his music. Which music he’s known for–of even if you associate that work with Mothersbaugh–depends largely on your age, however.
The older among us might immediately consider him an art-rock revolutionary for his work with Devo, whose hit “Whip It” was an early-’80s essential. A slightly younger set might give a knowing nod to Devo as that band with red planters on their heads. Younger still and you might feel nostalgia over the songs Mothersbaugh wrote for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Or Rugrats. Kids these days may not know him but will certainly know his score for The Lego Movie while their parents might fawn over his musical contributions to Wes Anderson’s films.
Yet, for a man with such a litany of era-defining music to his credit, Mothersbaugh’s true creative passion has always been art. From the time he was seven he’s been scribbling, drawing, painting, creating. While on tour with Devo, which was itself meant to be an art project by a group of art-obsessed college mates, he developed the discipline of producing daily postcard-sized drawings. “It was my diary. It became an image bank and a source of lyrics when I was in Devo and any of my graphics outside of the band,” says Mothersbaugh. “Anytime I’d get 100 of these images I’d put them in these archival folders. Through the years I kept doing it and I stayed true to it no matter what was going on.”
Now, thousands of those images, along with a sprawling body of work that includes everything from textiles to gigantic musical contraptions to studies in symmetry have been assembled into a traveling exhibit and companion book called Myopia, all curated by director and chief animator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA Denver) Adam Lerner. Currently at MCA Denver until April 2015, and touring to New York, Cincinnati and Minneapolis, Myopia pays tribute to Mark Mothersbaugh, the artist.
With his artistic life on display–a part of his creative output that had previously been largely private–Mothersbaugh took the time to talk with Co.Create about the Myopia retrospective, how his art and music continually influence each other, and how his near blindness sparked his life-long love of art.
Art came to Mothersbaugh as an awakening–in a very literal sense. As a child he struggled with myopia, or, extreme nearsightedness, without even knowing it. It wasn’t until he was in second grade that someone suggested getting his eyes checked. That was the moment that everything changed.
“Somehow I made it all the way until I was almost eight years old being legally blind and never knew it. I could see shadows and I could see colors–everything was like a very watery impressionist painting,” says Mothersbaugh. “My whole life was like that, unless it got six inches from my face and then I could see 20/20. That’s where the focus point was because I had extreme myopia. That meant that as a child I was invading people’s territory.”
“I got a pair of glasses when I was seven and I saw the world–it all just came into focus in one moment. It was the opposite of a baby who spends months learning how to focus their eyes. For me it all happened in a split second. It was like all the questions I had were answered at once. I felt such a joy. And I started drawing, especially trees because I had seen pictures of them but I had always just took for granted that there were these things up there that I could only see in photos that I could put six inches away from my face.”
This visual impairment, a defining part of his life, became the central theme of Mothersbaugh’s art exhibit and an apt metaphor for his work. While Mothersbaugh has shown parts of his work in, he estimates, about 150 small gallery shows and pop-up installations, this is the first time the full body of his work has been on display. It amounts to a public debut of what has been a more private aspect of his creative life.
“I had this very private side of my art life and I was enjoying that,” says Mothersbaugh. “It was always there for people to look at but they would have had to search it out. It took Adam to have the intellectual interest to put this show together.”
So what was it like seeing the cumulative output of five decades’ worth of effort assembled into a retrospective? “It was shocking when I walked into the museum,” Mothersbaugh says. “It became more than just an intellectual process. When we were talking about the show or just designing it, I was very relaxed about it. It made me a little bit nervous when I saw all the stuff moving in. These books were uncensored; no one looked at them, really. I would show them sometimes to the guys in Devo when we were on an airplane, bored. And that’d be it. But then I saw the room that had 330 books with 100 drawings in each–they were all laid out on tables and it looked like a cross between Guantanamo Bay and a scene in Brazil. Then I wanted to sleep in the room. I was like, ‘Can I just stay here?’
“This is one of the biggest moments in my life. I’m not looking forward to the show coming down in April. I’m trying to figure out how many billions of dollars would I have to get some Russian oil Mafioso to cough up so that we could buy the museum and just leave it intact.”
While Myopia puts a particular focus on his work as an artist, Mothersbaugh has always considered music and art as one and the same. “By the time I got out of school I was a printmaker but I thought of art as something that was not restricted to a particular material or technique. It was about the idea first and you used whatever medium you wanted to solve it,” he says.
Even Devo, the fame-making band that cemented his role as a musician, was always intended to be an art project. “The band, we thought we were more like an agit-prop group. We wanted to make film. We wanted to create visuals as much as we wanted to do music and we just saw those as all part and parcel of the same thing,” he says. This multi-disciplinary stance confused execs in pre-MTV era Hollywood, who insisted that Devo was a band. “It took MTV for record companies to figure out that sound and vision belonged together. To me it all comes from the same place.”
Though little proof is needed to argue the interconnectedness of creative expression, Mothersbaugh’s own creative career offers many examples.
One such is his Beautiful Mutants series. This set of manipulated photographs explores they symmetry of people’s faces, or lack thereof. Mothersbaugh says he became interested in symmetry, and the fact that humans aren’t really that symmetrical, earlier in his life. For this body of work, created before technologies like Apple’s Photo Booth made such image manipulation easy, he would take photos of a person’s face, split it down the middle and flip one side. “I found that almost everyone has half of their face that, when you make it symmetrical, looks more innocent or cuter or more beautiful. Then they also have a side that looks more dark, malevolent and more evil and grotesque. I became really fascinated with that.”
This flipping and flopping of images came into play while Mothersbaugh was working on Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic With Steven Zissou, and the idea of symmetry seeped over into this musical work. Here’s what happened:
“I was working with Wes on Life Aquatic and there was a scene where Bill Murray’s character was like, ‘Let me tell you about my boat.’ It was one of the happier moments in that film. Wes says, ‘I want it to sound like when Gene Hackman and Angelica Houston were walking through Central Park during The Royal Tenenbaums.’ So I wrote some things that were in the style of the music I wrote for that scene and it wasn’t quite right for him. I did a couple more and it wasn’t doing it either.
“Then, I was at home that night doing a Beautiful Mutant and I held up the sheet music from the piece he liked in The Royal Tenenbaums. I held it up to a mirror and I played it backwards, and the next day I went in and played him basically that scene backwards along with Bill Murray picture, but with a different set of instruments. Instead of the melody going downwards it came up and you didn’t even recognize it as the same piece of music. But when Wes heard it he went, ‘That’s it!’ I didn’t even tell him right away–I waited until we recorded it. So the Beautiful Mutants were not just a visual manifestation, they also became a sonic manifestation.”
Some of Mothersbaugh’s more elaborate artistic endeavors are his orchestrions–large musical contraptions built out of the pipes of old pipe organs. Mothersbaugh is avid collector of these pipes, largely because, as he says, “it was freaking me out that these organs were getting dismantled and obliterated.” About three years ago he says he started making instruments out of his collection, which he estimates includes around 1,000 pipes. “I started putting them all together and ended up with something that was totally specific that you had to score music specifically for, not uniform like an organ.”
Of the three that are in the Myopia exhibit, the orchestrion that’s most interesting to Mothersbaugh is the birdcall aviary, which actually came into being as a result of Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.
“When Wes sent me some footage from Moonrise Kingdom I wrote some very conceptual pieces that involved some field drums, a bugle and some tom-toms. Wes wanted the music to take you into that world,” he says. “But he sent me this footage of the two main kids running through the woods and there was no sound to the footage he sent me. I remember thinking how odd that was, that you don’t even hear birds.
“I have this collection of over 100 bird calls and when I started playing the bird calls over his movie, I forgot about the movie because I became so interested in making this bird-call symphony. But unless you have about 80 people and you figure out a notation for them, it’s too cost prohibitive. So I thought an orchestrion is the solution. I could control the birdcalls from the keyboard. It took us three years to build and it will play about 60 birdcalls right now. I’m still adding to it.”
Whether in his music or his art, much of Mothersbaugh’s vibrant, eclectic worldview is rooted in his early experiences with myopia. He says not being able to see made his childhood confusing and difficult, but now, his visual impairment, which is too extreme to be corrected with laser surgery, provides continuing inspiration.
“All I have to do to go back to being a second grader getting detention for not being able to see the board is take off my glasses,” says Mothersbaugh.
“That early experience was always a creative draw. I feel like I use that as a portal. When I take my glasses off, especially at night because the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see in the morning is that other world, it’s the portal for exploration where I can go beyond the 10% of my brain that’s the caretaker for my body and the nanny for life. It’s the part of my brain that has to deal with driver’s licenses and credit cards and mortgages and kids getting to school. The other 90% could be the 4th dimension, the really interesting part of the brain, where everything creative and everything inspirational comes from. So I think that’s like reaching through the mist. Like in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, it’s like when they reached into the giant thing of Jell-o and they could just bounce around in it.”