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Myopia: Mark Mothersbaugh Mutates MCA Denver

Mark Mothersbaugh and Adam Lerner make an unlikely creative duo.

The exhibition features 30,000 postcard-sized works of art Mothersbaugh has created over the years.

The two-rumped My Little Pony sculpture.

Myopia incorporates music as well as visual art.

Mothersbaugh creates everything from commercially produced rugs to unique instruments.

The multimedia on display includes Mark Ryden's collaboration with Mothersbaugh, "Daisy Bell."

Mothersbaugh's most mainstream art: eyeglasses.

Mirror images are a recurring theme in Mothersbaugh's work.

Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh launches his life-spanning retrospective, Myopia, on Oct. 30 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. The postpunk legend talks about the connective tissue between his art and music, his thoughts on Denver and the de-evolution of the human race.
On the second floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver, there are 30,000 postcards in binders, just waiting to be flipped through, examined and otherwise ogled.

They feature a menagerie of bizarre imagery: a bright green octopus, spastic cartoons with googly eyes and various photographs from skewed perspectives.

It's a bit like glimpsing into the mutant id of Mark MothersbaughBest known as the vocalist and keyboard player for Devo, Mothersbaugh has created between one and 25 of these postcards a day for most of his 64 years on Earth.

Postcards aside, he has created a staggering body of work, inspired by "fears and paranoias, bad dreams and traffic jams, and mortgage payments and things like that." He's managed to effortlessly crossbreed the mainstream with the subversive for five decades running, and Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia shows that his visual art is no different than his music.

Not only did he manage to create radio-friendly hits infected with a mutant punk sensibility with Devo, he's scored hundreds of TV shows and movies -- ranging from Rugrats to Rushmore -- and inserted subliminal messages into the music of no less than 30 commercials that aired on network TV.

Through it all, he's kept up the daily routine of splashing his brainwaves onto postcards, then using them as launchpads for larger works of art, and MCA Denver got first crack at his dazzling, unnerving one-man show.

Mothersbaugh struck up an unlikely collaboration with MCA Denver Director Adam Lerner in 2011 after Devo headlined the Denver County Fair. Lerner was uninitiated to the ways and means of the band at the time, but the chance meeting made a major impression, leading him to curate Mothersbaugh's first major exhibition.

"I realized within 15 minutes that he was probably the most interesting person I'd ever met," Lerner says. "I wanted to tell his story."

It follows that Myopia jumped from idea to real-life exhibition. It's running in Denver through April 2015 before embarking on a cross-country tour to New York, Minneapolis and other cities.

Bad eyesight and mutants

For Mothersbaugh, creating visual art is primarily a release; it's something he has to do, spectators or not. "If I had to give up my audience or my aesthetic," he says, "I would give up my audience."

The exhibition is named for Mothersbaugh's visual condition. He's legally blind without his glasses, something that wasn't diagnosed until he was eight. "My whole world was out of focus for the first eight years," he says of his childhood in Akron, Ohio. "It was all lights and colors and sounds."

Once he got his "pop-bottle glasses," everything changed, he says. "It was the most amazing day of my life and made me start drawing."

Not that he doesn't still use his bad eyesight as an abstract inspiration. He lifts his glasses and describes the "amazing painting” he sees in front of him. "It looks like pebbled glass on a shower door," he says. "I can go back to that world anytime I want."

Mothersbaugh describes his younger self as small and awkward. "I did identify with mutants," he says. "There were sideshows at shopping malls in Ohio at that time. The world's fattest man was really fat. I thought maybe that was my place in the world."

Perhaps from this epiphany, his alter ego and sporadic stage persona, Booji Boy, was born a decade later. A creepy, childlike mask allows Mothersbaugh to become someone else entirely.

"We couldn't afford drugs, and we hated to bowl, and none of us had a van," he remembers. In this context, rubber masks were good, cheap fun. "It was so much easier to be this character," he says. "I could do things that I couldn't do when I was just Mark."

De-evolution of the species

It's not hard to connect the dots squarely between Devo and Mothersbaugh's visual art.

Mothersbaugh and his cohorts in the band were initially inspired by Andy Warhol's multimedia blitz and a book, The Beginning Was the End by Oscar Kiss Maerth, that posited that humans evolved from cannibalistic apes. The concept of the de-evolution of Homo sapiens became the band's guiding principle. "We figured there was Art Deco, there was Art Nouveau, there could be Art Devo," says Mothersbaugh.

Thus, in 1972, Devo was born as a literary art project with an aim of making both films and music, and the band was instrumental in creating the music video in the 1980s with "Whip It." Mothersbaugh describes an ethos based on "doing something that was avant-garde that was right in the mainstream -- that's how you change things in this world."

The same strain of wild artistic diversity shines through in Myopia. The exhibition includes not only the 30,000 aforementioned postcards, but also working Seussian instruments crafted from dozens of birdcalls and organ pipes, surreal photographs that utilize mirror images of half-faces, a host of multimedia and a two-rumped, zero-faced My Little Pony sculpture.  

Mothersbaugh says Denver is the ideal city to launch Myopia, describing a walk up Brighton Boulevard to that fateful gig at the county fair three years ago. "There was a lot of activity," he recalls. "Denver looks like a bright, shining star, and you had this beautiful museum and this crazy genius for a museum director. I just felt it was the perfect place to do this."

And what of the continued de-evolution of Homo sapiens, the concept that underpinned Devo? "Even in our most paranoid vision, we wouldn't have thought it would have moved this fast," he answers. "It's like the human mind is this amazing thing, but it's kind of crazy and it doesn't embrace a natural state."

But not all is lost. There's a playful positivity lurking in his work. Take the lyrics of Devo's "Gates of Steel": "Twist away the gates of steel / Unlock the secret voice / Give in to ancient noise / Take a chance, a brand new dance."

So how does one twist away those gates of steel? "It's a heroic endeavor," answers Mothersbaugh. "It involves choosing your mutations carefully."

Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver in LoDo at 1485 Delgany St. through April 12, 2015.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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