To be innovative or cutting-edge in the visual arts takes a personal commitment to the urge to create. You can’t stop and you don’t get to retire. Indeed, if you have any success, the expectation is that you will be making your work until you absolutely can’t anymore.
Few people lead a “life creative” quite like Akron native Mark Mothersbaugh. Best known for his musical talents, first with Devo and later as a composer for film, TV and video games, he has shared on many occasions how he began his artistic career at the School of Art at Kent State University, and that learned passion to explore creatively shows through in a lifetime of artwork both musical and visual.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia is presented in two locations, the Akron Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. Each has a different focus: Akron leans more toward the visual art side and Cleveland toward the musical. However, there’s lots of crossover of the things that make up Mothersbaugh’s career in both places.
I strongly suggest you see both shows, as they truly have things unique to their locations. Further, the visual impact of driving between the museums has a clarifying quality when you see the shows. I’m not sure if this was intended, but the influence of the Northeast Ohio visual landscape on Mothersbaugh’s artwork starts to come through when you take the time to see it all in both venues.
When you walk into the Akron Art Museum you see several small (maybe 18 inches tall) ceramic sculptures called “Roly Polys,” arranged on athletic turf. The works have a familiar aesthetic that is apparent through all of his art. It’s a little bit sense of humor, a little bit commentary on culture, and just a tinge of creepy to push your buttons. There is also a little bit of the genius that has made this person so memorable and important as an artist.
How Mothersbaugh’s work is displayed helps to create the experience; the shows are designed in a way that’s in rhythm with what is being shown. There are bright splashes of color and thoughtful ways of presentation that help make your experience more meaningful. It’s a lot to have done, but somehow it all works throughout both locations.
Two things that stand out in the Akron part of the show are a display of 30,000 postcard-sized drawings, presented in a large room painted red, in binders on platforms just above floor level; and in an adjacent room, a large selection of mirrored or corrected photographs. These give an interesting look into the artist’s daily practice and just how committed Mothersbaugh is to his studio work.
The postcard drawings were done in a variety of locations and their size is a good fit for an artist who finds himself traveling quite a bit. The most distinctive part of these small works is their utter lack of fear. I applaud artists who are willing to show us the inside of their heads, and these drawings definitely do that. No subject is taboo, and the images and text included give us a better understanding of what has interested, influenced or even disturbed him.
The room full of mirrored photographs shows how a commitment to an idea, and a willingness to keep it going, can transform the familiar into a new and haunting visual conversation. Presented mostly inside old tintype and/or daguerreotype picture cases, these photographs have been manipulated to reflect the edges of the images in such a way that it re-renders the subjects into something completely new.
The images are beautiful and reflect a thought process that is also evident in some of the sculptures in the show, namely a room full of headless horses in Akron (think My Little Pony with just two butt-ends), and a Scion automobile at MOCA, which is also two butt-ends.
Three pieces that are to me perhaps the works that are most distinctively Mothersbaugh are featured at MOCA. They are musical sculptures made with bird calls and orphaned organ pipes and doorbells. They look like some kind of medieval, electronic one-man band pulled out of a science fiction television show.
The works somehow fit visually, though they lack some of the cartoon-like nature of several of the pieces in the overall exhibit. These sculptures capture the innovation and aesthetic that has made Mothersbaugh so successful on so many different fronts. They are joyous and magical.
Also on display in Cleveland are lots of the musical elements and music-related imagery we know Mothersbaugh best for. They are presented in a way that feels more like you’re looking at something you might find in your aunt or uncle’s house, rather than in a gallery or museum. While they do give you a reference point and they are fun to look at, I worry that they might be putting the artist into a box a little bit. But I’m familiar with his work in general, and am more open to the idea that I’m looking at and can accept the art on its own merits.
We live in world that hits us with imagery and sound all day, every day, whether you live in a big city or out in the country on a farm. It’s unavoidable and too often hard to interpret or understand. With the visual art of Mark Mothersbaugh, we in Northeast Ohio have the unique opportunity to look through the eyes of a person we have watched and rooted for almost all of his professional life.
What’s more, we get the chance to see how this artist has influenced so many people worldwide. Through his commitment and drive to create, Mothersbaugh sets a great example of how an artist grows and evolves. Clearly, if you take in this expansive show, you’ll see that Mark Mothersbaugh is in no way through being cool.
Contact Anderson Turner at email@example.com.