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Devo Co-founder Comes Home to Akron for a Show of His Visual Art

mothersbaugh at moca
Mark Mothersbaugh pauses for a moment of reflection at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland

On Saturday, the Akron Art Museum’s putting on a “last-look” party to celebrate the final week of its Mark Mothersbaugh exhibition.

Since the spring, the Akron museum and Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art have shared a retrospective of the Akron native and Devo founder’s audio and visual art. In today’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman tours both shows with a curator and with the artist himself.

Mark Mothersbaugh claims he can tell how old people are by how they know him.

“If you say that you’re Mark Mothersbaugh somebody will say, ’Oh, you’re the art teacher on Yo Gabba Gabba!’ That means they have a kid that’s between 2 and 5 years old. Or they say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who wrote the music for Rugrats.’ They could be millennials. And then Peewee’s Playhouse, if that’s what they know me by, then they’re a little bit older. And then if it’s Devo, they’re probably older.” 

self portrait
Self-portraits are prominent in both exhibitions.

Devo’s been called new wave, post-punk, electronic, industrial. The music that came out of Kent State in the early 1970s was hard to pigeonhole. Clearly rock and roll, but in an arty form.

Art before music
Mothersbaugh was a visual artist long before a musician, but until this show, that hasn’t been seen in his hometown.

“Everyone here of course, knows him for Devo, but he’s sort of re-introducing himself as a visual artist.” says Akron Art Museum Associate Curator Teresa Bembnister.  She adds that Mothersbaugh’s artwork, like his music, is witty and ironic.

“There’s a lot of visual puns and goofiness in what you’ll see. If you want to walk in the other gallery there’s a good example of that.”  

We’re looking at Mothersbaugh’s “roli-polis,” a dozen silly, ceramic, orange and black creatures sitting on green AstroTurf, looking a little like munchkins.

“You notice there’s a little gray ring that they sit on,” says Bembnister. “If that ring was not there they would just roll right over. They are literally roli-polis.”  

The gift of myopia

A car and a carved ruby Mothersbaugh designed are among the unusual objects in the MOCA show.

The shared exhibition in Cleveland and Akron is titled “Myopia,” because until second grade, Mothersbaugh couldn’t see farther than six inches from his face.

“He’s even designed his own line of eyewear,” Bembnister notes, “So I think we all know that he is myopic, but we may not know how that myopia influenced his artwork.” 

Mothersbaugh looks at it as a gift.

“The day I got my glasses I was so excited about it. And I had seen trees for the first time. I was drawing them the next day in second grade, and my teacher was looking over my shoulder, and she said, ‘You draw trees better than me.’ And that, just saying that. You never know what somebody’ going to say, and it’s going to affect a child.”

A proud Akronite
Bembnister says the traveling exhibition may have started in Denver, but Akron’s where it really belongs.  “If you look at his Instagram account that’s what he says, ‘Mark Mothersbaugh, Akronite.’ That’s how he identifies himself.” 

When the exhibition opened, Akron’s mayor gave the native son a key to the city. “This to me is like so special to come back to Ohio,” says the artist. “It’s so special to get to show here. I never thought I would get this.” 

Kent State’s also given him an honorary degree, and Mothersbaugh still treasures his college memories.

“We had been at Kent State during these amazing years in the late ‘60s, when there was this incredible creative force and energy.” 

Mothersbaugh turned on to it his first quarter at Kent in a print-making class.

“Screen printing to me particularly appealed to me because in an era before computers it was the kind of thing where you could take an image, you could burn it onto a screen, you could print it, and it was about as close as you could get to instant art, and I love that.” 

Early work in Kent
Devo, along with ChrissieHynde, Joe Walsh, and Chris Butler and the Waitresses spawned in Kent’s cradle of creativity in the late '60s.

But before they ever played a riff of rock together, Devo co-founder Jerry Casale and Mothersbaugh were making art. “He sought me out because I was doing graffiti stickers all over campus of astronauts holding potatoes. I don’t know if they’re in this show or not. A lot of that stuff didn’t survive.”

 But much of his older work is on the walls of MOCA in Cleveland. “That’s from like 1969, 1968 maybe even, that little print there. It’s a guy throwing up in front of a picture of the moon.”

He recalls how humans leaving the planet for the moon had enthralled him. “If astronauts were going up there in the 60s, then all of us were going up there by the 70s or 80s. We were all going to be just having vacation homes on the moon by then.”

Futurist and optimist
Mothersbaugh says he’s still a futurist, and was always the optimist in Devo. “I always felt like as crazy and as unnatural and out of touch as humans are with the planet, even though we created a lot of problems we were always trying to solve them.” 

But the dream ended for Mothersbaugh on May 4, 1970 with four of his fellow students lying dead on the ground. In the shadow of the shootings Casale and Mothersbaugh started making, sarcastic, absurd, angry music, and Devo evolved. “In sort of an attempt to make sense of what we were seeing going on in the world at that point in time.” 

They named the band Devo, because they thought the human race was devolving. “So for us, de-evolution was a way to talk about our society and talk about the human condition.” 

Akron art Museum Associate Curator Teresa Bembnister communes with the roli-polis.

They were influenced not only by current events but also by what they were reading. At MOCA,Mothersbaugh points to a 1971 pseudo-scientific treatise that Jerry Casale and his English major friend Bob Lewis discovered. Titled “The Beginning Was the End,” its premise is that man evolved from cannibalistic apes.

"They found that book right about the same time I found this book, ‘Jocko Homo.’ And both of them were attacks on evolution, which to us made total sense.” 

Varied influences
At about the same time, a Church of God service about the end times made the hair on his arms stand up. “They had a totally different alien language that they spoke. Although I didn’t join the Church of God I wanted to connect up with that world in my art.” 

He and the other Devo band members were influenced, too, by iconoclastic art movements in Europe between the World Wars.

“We were especially fascinated with Dada. I loved surrealism and the futurists in Italy who proclaimed that the classical orchestra does not contain enough instruments to make the proper sounds to represent an industrial society. And so they were using fog horns and airplane propellers. And we loved all that stuff." 

New sounds

Mothersbaugh named this carved ruby "Custurd."

Mothersbaugh wanted new sounds for Devo, too. “Because I thought rock and roll didn’t have the instruments or the sounds to reflect our culture of 1972.  So with the help of some friends of mine in Akron we bought an early mini- MOOG.”  

The band’s first drummer was Mothersbaugh’s brother Jim.

“We got him to build an electronic drum kit when there was no such thing. He made one of the first electronic drum kits because we were looking for V-2 rockets and mortar blasts, and ray guns, and the sound of radiation equipment, and things that were not typically rock and roll.”  

They still loved rock. “But we thought we have to help move on to whatever’s next, and in some way we did. We kind of helped integrate electronics into pop culture, but it was a lot about ideas.”

Ideas, and art. Devo created their own album art and videos. “The idea of using outside production companies to listen to our song, just hand off a song, and say ‘go make a video’ to us seemed absurd. Because to us sound and vision were one and the same.” 

Audio plus visual
Sound and vision unite, still, in Mothersbaugh’s“Orchestrions,” on display at MOCA. He constructed sculptures from hundreds of noise-makers he’s used in movie soundtracks including 150 bird whistles.

While his audio and tech-driven output is in Cleveland, most of the visual art is in the Akron show where museum visitors can page through 30,000 postcard-size drawings.

Curator Teresa Bembnister says its Mothersbaugh diary. “There’s a postcard I’m looking at right now and it says ‘Rich food. Paris 1/1/2003. Anita just vomited $500 worth of food.’ And Anita is Mark’s wife. So he’s recording these things that happen.” 

“I make that stuff every day,” says Mothersbaugh, “and to my family it’s just this weird thing Dad does. He, like while we’re doing other things he might be drawing something that he wants to remember.”

His daughters are 11 and 14. “They got an I-Pad, and I just remember a couple of years ago watching them running around the house laughing and making videos. I’m thinking, they have no idea how long it took Devo to make this film we made.” 

Technology and the internet fuel his optimism. “Like 50 years from now where’s that going to take us? Because kids are going to have such sophisticated information about music, and about visual arts, and about movement and film, and dance. I just think I would love to be able to take a little time travel and be able to watch what’s happening, because I know it’s going to be really incredible.”