The solo exhibition celebrates Devo but also the artist's sound-machine sculptures and high- and low-tech illustrations
Did you know that Mark Mothersbaugh used to be in this band called Devo?
No? You just kind of, what, kind of wandered into the “Myopia” exhibition at the Contemporary Austin because you attend art shows whenever possible? Because such viewings and the responses they provoke are part of what you find fulfilling about your fleeting existence in this world?
Bless your heart, citizen.
Luckily, this show will also bless your eyes and your mind – beyond the glamour of fame and the pull of nostalgia that might account for the majority of everyone else checking out what’s on display here. Because, sometimes, people who’ve been bathed in the pop-cult spotlight? Sometimes those people are of deeper and more diverse interest than the reductive and philandering eye of media reveals. This Mothersbaugh is a case in point.
Curator Adam Lerner and the Contemporary Austin team have been canny in arranging this exhibition. Not just temporally, with the as-if-by-magic concurrence with this year’s SXSW festival, but in its physical deportment within the Jones Center venue.
The first floor’s a shrine to Mothersbaugh’s creative youth and his involvement in Devo. No one’s pretending the artist wasn’t part of the MTV-fueled phenomenon; instead, they’re celebrating the fact; and that’s doubly legit because Devo always was, after all, an ongoing, self-assembling mythology of cultural subversion and art-making of which the danceable tunes were only the most marketable node. This section, with its vitrined examples of college-era zines and news clippings and early band posters, is well-organized, well-presented, worthy of something you’d find in the Harry Ransom Center. And it sets the stage for what’s to come.
The second part of the show, up those lovely wooden stairs, is all Mothersbaugh. The main room features his large sound machines, radially symmetrical arrangements of servomechanisms that unleash the tones of pipes, of bird whistles, intermittently galvanizing the room with sonic charm. The walls around these audiomechs are adorned with the man’s vivid and oversized illustrations – rendered in the form of rugs, seriously, rugs that would tie a room together only if that room were the off-duty abode of some mad scientist. (Note: That’s a positive.)
The third part of the show, in a room all to itself, is the artist’s Beautiful Mutants series. Whereby Mothersbaugh discovered that you can do weird shit by using mirroring software on images of the human face – which anybody might do, sure. But the onetime Booji Boy turned that filter on a vast series of old tintype portraits to freakiest effect, then painstakingly set his eerie, well-matted results in elegant frames and velvet-embossed metal lockets, so what mad universe are you now in to witness such a thing?
Finally, beyond the steampunky mutants, there are the postcards. The hand-drawn, hand-painted, and otherwise hand-embellished postcards. That Mothersbaugh has been creating – in the studio, on the road, in hotel rooms, in diner booths, at parties, while waiting for planes and soundchecks and optometrist appointments – for the past three decades. Portfolio after portfolio of them, arranged on a floor-level grid of pallets that display a wealth of visual invention sufficient to boggle any mind considering the scope of it all.
It could be that, over time, anybody with a talent for cartooning and a brightly curious mind would come up with the diversity of images on display here, the engaging patterns and shifts of patterns, the through line themes and their unexpected variations. But anybody didn’t. Mark Mothersbaugh – Ohio native, former Devolutionist, composer of modern film scores, relentless maker of whatever will scratch his aesthetic itch with its production – he did.
And this – and the rest of what the Contemporary Austin has – is why we recommend “Myopia” for your diversion and delight.