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Features / Art

“Whip It was an accident”: Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh on his life as a visual artist

Words:

Lucy Bourton

Photography:

Molly Matalon

“I knew things might be different for me when I was in school,” says Mark Mothersbaugh, a creative who has blurred the boundaries of visual art since the 1970s. Over his astounding career Mark has donned many creative costumes, while remaining a prolific artist. He went from art school student to a lead singer who questioned the meaning of American rock ’n’ roll in Devo, to scoring music for multiple Wes Anderson features and composing for a mammoth 180 television shows and counting. Despite each of these musical endeavours, being a visual artist has always been his intention – an intention informed by his unique perspective on the world.

“A teacher said to me, ‘Mr Mothersbaugh, add up the numbers on the board’, and I’d go, ‘what’s a board?’” Mark has myopia, a short-sighted condition which means he is legally blind, a problem that went unnoticed until he was in his second year at school. “I was in a fog and thought everyone saw the same way I did. But when I got my glasses the whole world changed. I saw everything through a fish eye lens, but the world was in focus for the first time,” he explains. “Within five minutes I saw what a roof on a house looks like, I had no idea what a roof was, or what smoke coming out of a chimney looks like, or a cloud, or birds flying, or the sun! It all came at once.”

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“It taught me to embrace your disabilities, not think of them as something necessarily negative.”

Mark Mothersbaugh

The following week at school Mark was drawing trees: “This teacher, who had spanked me, sent me to the office and humiliated me, said ‘you draw trees better than me’. It was the first time she wasn’t saying sit down, shut up, it was something positive and it made a profound change. I went home that night and dreamt of being an artist. I’ve drawn every day since.”

His new-found world view became the driving creative force, one that meant Mark could translate life into music, illustrations and installations in a way that no one else could. “You know what, I have no bad feelings about the way things happened,” he says. “I kind of feel like it gave me an insight. I think of it as a gift, even though it is a handicap. It taught me to embrace your disabilities, not think of them as something necessarily negative.”

A recent touring exhibition of the artist’s works, named after his eyesight condition Myopia, is a show of 3,000 pieces dating back to 1968. The colossal amount of works he has created he puts down to fixation. “Some people are obsessed with working out, some with cigarettes, my obsession is making paintings and collages everyday.”

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The exhibition featured an array of hundreds of sketchbook drawings, known as Mark’s “image bank, for when I needed something for a Devo record for instance”. Some of these small drawings have been enlarged for the show, using a giant printer Mark keeps in his studio. “They’re not that expensive, but they get you on the ink don’t they! If I was only able to work in one medium it would be printing, I just love that so much.”

Mark has also always been an archivist, meaning he kept all the band’s instruments, most of which his brother Jim circuit bent to create “noisemakers that represented our time; we thought of music the same way the Futurists did”. Mark’s newer noisemaker installations are made from reused organ pipes and multiple bird calls, collected from “little wooden boxes where you turn the crank to make artificial bird sounds, made because industrial culture was killing all the wildlife in London,” he explains. All these pieces are made in Mark’s studio, Mutato Muziko, an oval shaped, lime green-painted building on Hollywood Boulevard, where Mark can combine all of his artistic practices. “Yesterday I was working on a film and I had the string quartet here for most of the day, but to me it’s like, I get bored. I get bored so easily while people are working here on music and stuff,” he says. “So when the engineer was mixing I’d go into the other room and make new prints.”

Despite the use of these noisemakers and artworks often being counterparts to film soundtracks or album covers, the exhibition is an opportunity to see the work outside what it is culturally known for, representing its true abstraction. “At the end of the day, they only let you be so creative in the entertainment industry.”

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Mark became focused on art while studying at Kent State, a “really interesting vibrant school” that unleashed the latent power in its students. “It was empowering, so we protested against the Vietnam war at the time. We thought, maybe, how we felt made a difference but we were shown that it didn’t. They [Ohio National Guard] let us know that our ideas were not welcome and they killed people.” In 1970, there was a fatal attack on unarmed students in the grounds of Kent State which ignited a spark amongst Mark, his brother and his friends. Their response was to form a band that questioned the ways of the world: Devo.

Devo developed from a combination of idiosyncratic interests that Mark reels off: A book The Beginning was the End by a Yugoslavian anthropologist “talking about how man is an insane species of brain eating apes”, an anti-evolution religious pamphlet Jocko Homo, the new technology of laser discs and artistic movements from Dada to Bauhaus. Most importantly their inspiration was artists who were expanding the role of the craftsman; “it wasn’t like you had to be a painter,” he says, “you could just be Andy Warhol”.

“I was always an artist first, and Whip It was an accident.”

Mark Mothersbaugh

The result was an art school performance that led to a record deal. Looking back on their first shows, “people were expecting a bunch of guys looking like Mick Jagger clones…we looked like we were there to repair the air conditioning system,” Mark says. Devo’s live performance played with costume, set design, and choreography, and the audience’s confusion and dislike only spurred them on. “We thought if they don’t like us it might be good, an indicator that we were on to something. If we’re getting people that upset, hopefully they’re thinking about what’s going on,” he says. “We were making art extending beyond the notion of just getting a song on the radio.”

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The band reached mainstream recognition after the release of Whip It in 1980, which “by any means was not our favourite song, it was a joke,” Mark says. But with fame came the demand to create more hits, a notion the four art students had no interest in. “Record companies are used to artists that stray off course, they were very good at doing everything to keep us in check, to minimise anything about us that was artistically relevant,” Mark explains. “I didn’t like the people, I didn’t like that we had turned into a band, and all of things a ‘quirky band’. We were ‘wacky’, like ‘they talk about important issues, they’re crazy’. So I lost interest, but at the same time we were always making art. We were visual artists first.”

The growth of Devo’s fame was reaching a peak at the same time as Mark’s disinterest. As a result, he replaced afterparties for a sketchbook and pen, illustrating “hideous or hilarious” industry-related scenes from the previous day. “While we were on a boring bus somewhere I could then pass it to the other guys and they would laugh.”

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A defiance against the mainstream has informed Mark’s career decisions since. As his back catalogue of artworks grew into the thousands, he decided to exhibit with a movement of Californian low brow artists, rather than use his fame to sign with a gallery. “I thought that world sounded as bad as being signed to Virgin or Warner Brothers, and that whole lot I had met,” he explains. “I mean, people like Richard Branson really fooled me. He had signed the Sex Pistols who I liked and they came over after a show and hung out… Johnny Rotten had wanted to join Devo at one time and Richard Branson was trying to get us to do it. I stayed with Richard on his houseboat on the Thames for a couple of weeks, I started to get the idea that maybe he wasn’t such a good guy. He started looking more like a carnivorous brain eating ape, the protruding teeth, his values system… anyway it made me disillusioned with that lifestyle, I didn’t want that to happen with my visual art.”

The idea of being famous, or rather making a hit with his artwork is the main thing Mark has tried to avoid. “My visual art can’t turn into a thing where I have to keep doing the same thing over and over because it’s what sells.” To sidestep this, Mark chose galleries he just simply liked. “Tiny galleries that weren’t cynical yet, and they were in parts of town where people would be too scared to drive there in their Mercedes.” Mark was involved in 130 small-scale group shows over ten years, producing prints rather than paintings so college kids could afford them. “Not an original but close and inexpensive. I got emails afterwards saying, ‘I bought my first piece of art this weekend,’ and I loved that, I loved that it was getting kids interested in art.”

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Looking forward, Mark speaks with enthusiasm about his audience finally recognising him as the creative he has always wanted to be. “I was always an artist first, and Whip It was an accident, but it became this thing that people knew. Part of the exhibition for me is rebranding myself, showing people who I am, instead of who people think I am.”

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