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Beyond "Whip It" 

"The hole," said Jen Childs, "kind of freaks me out."

Wednesday, Jan 21 2004
If you recognize the name Mark Mothersbaugh, you probably imagine a young man in a shiny red hat, cracking a whip. That's what he was doing in Devo's "Whip It" video, at the pinnacle of his fame. He and college friend Jerry Casale founded Devo to provide an intelligent musical alternative to what they saw as the complacency of the post-student-movement '70s, to protest America's political and psychological "de-evolution." Mothersbaugh's goals haven't changed. He still wants to make America think. But now he's doing it with one-eyed rabbits.

And four-legged boys, limbless infants, and pink-winged ghost creatures. These are the subjects of Mothersbaugh's new show, "Beautiful Mutants," a series of digital prints on view until Feb. 1 at the Capobianco Gallery in North Beach. Since Devo, Mothersbaugh's projects have included soundtracks for the TV show Rugrats, the film Rushmore, and an advertisement for Procter & Gamble. But visual art has remained an overriding passion.

Mothersbaugh has been drawing since childhood, when his first pair of glasses revealed the "clouds, telephone wires, and smoke coming out of chimneys" he had never clearly seen before. Severe myopia had curved his vision, making life "like looking in a doorknob." Though Mothersbaugh still wears glasses -- big ones with burnished silver frames -- a bit of the doorknob is still evident in his work.

The images in "Beautiful Mutants" are based on the principle of reflective symmetry; Mothersbaugh crops photographs and reflects parts of them digitally to generate new patterns. To get an idea of the effect, think of a Rorschach blot, an ink-stained sheet of paper folded in half to make a mirror image of the stain. Now imagine folding the paper many times, the new mirror images creating permutations on the old. Mothersbaugh's process is something like this. Call it Rorschach origami.

The technique produces disturbing combinations of addition and subtraction. Charles Goodyear III, The Spider Boy of Akron, Ohio, dressed in a stylish kilt, has four legs but only one eye. And in Cyclo-Augen Pet, reflection produces a terrifying Cyclopean bunny in the arms of a little girl, whose blithely oblivious face sports a double nose.

Then there's Head Cheese, circa 1988. It's a baby. Or rather, it was once a baby. Now it's a sort of tumor, with no distinguishing features except two eyes that fixed Dog Bites with a rather malevolent stare. It reclines, as much as a tumor can recline, among frilly Victorian bedclothes.

The Victorian setting is a common one in Mothersbaugh's work. His sources are often formal portraits from the late 1800s, some from his grandmother's photo album. Others, from a New Delhi bookstore, depict rajahs in full regalia. One image, sadly not in the show, features the artist's mother- in-law. He admits he found "something cathartic" about mutating her.

Some of his subjects are famous. Asked if Henry Ford III, Original Bad Boy of Detroit features the real Henry Ford, Mothersbaugh responded, "What -- would I lie?" Dog Bites wasn't sure; it's hard to tell when Mothersbaugh is serious. When we asked him the purpose of the shiny red hats he and his bandmates wore in the "Whip It" video, he told us they collected something called "orgone energy," and that Devo needed them for "stamina."

Birdee Boy, Saturday Night, one of the show's few color images, features a pink-winged ghost-baby hovering between what appears to be two heaping dishes of hair. Nearby is The Richest Kid in Town With his Birthday Gift at the Akron Aviary. The gift in question is a sort of go-kart, into which the Richest Kid's distorted body seems fused. Boy meets kart near boy's crotch, at which the reflection process has produced an unmistakably vaginal hole. "The hole," said Jen Childs, "kind of freaks me out."

Childs was one of our many fellow patrons on the show's opening night; most were Devo fans. Many, however, were also longtime followers of Mothersbaugh's visual art, a fact that underscores the connection Mothersbaugh sees among his endeavors. Certain common themes were evident to initiates. Of the three attendees Dog Bites surveyed, all had heard of orgone energy, and two knew that its "discoverer" had gone to jail for fraud.

Then there was the potato. The gallery notes referred to the natural asymmetries of Homo sapiens as "the subtle potato-like qualities of the human form." Potatoes appeared on decals affixed to two of Mothersbaugh's three self-portraits, and on a bandmate's T-shirt in a promotional poster from the Devo days. This interest in tubers apparently dates to early Devo, when its members -- boys from blue-collar Akron, Ohio -- saw America's class structure in terms of vegetables. "People like the Kennedys," says Mothersbaugh, "were like beautiful asparagus people. We're more like potatoes. We're not the beautiful vegetables, but we're a staple of everybody's diet."

Influencing this diet is what Devo -- and Mothersbaugh -- is all about. Devo rebelled against a music scene whose message it saw as "I'm white, I'm misogynistic, I'm stupid, I'm a conspicuous consumer, and I'm proud of it [...] Go America!" Mothersbaugh still imagines his work as producing a kind of perceptual double take. Viewing his art, he says, should be "like looking around a different corner."

Fellow gallerygoers seemed to have mastered this way of looking. Margo Rost likened Head Cheese to "a new planet" rising out of a crib. It reminded her friend Jessica King of "a parasitic twin." Longtime Mothersbaugh fan Doug Welch gave the show "a Duchamp rating of 9.7." Asked what that entailed, Welch elaborated: "heavy Duchampitude."

On our way out, we passed by Wedgie Squared; Cedar Point, Sandusky, in which a woman's two heads squeeze her boyfriend between them. Three Brothers, All With Butterfly Ears, in which all ears seem normal but the middle brother has only one eye. Mystica Seer From Lisboa, circa 1893, in which the seer sports chubby baby arms and a nose about 2 1/2 times too wide.

We took a last look at the crowd. A little girl in a leopard pantsuit grabbed the detachable bottom of another guest's plastic wineglass. "I'm collecting these," she explained. Mothersbaugh and some friends chatted about the removal of parasites. In the corner of the room, we noticed a woman wearing angel wings and remembered an earlier conversation with K.R.K. Ryden, an old friend of Mothersbaugh, who had cast his eyes around the gallery and said, "They're all mutants. They're all beautiful."

About The Author

Anna North


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