Mark Mothersbaugh has a one-word response when I tell him that, when I was in my teens, I was freaked out by early videos from his band, Devo. After a beat he says, "Good."
Those early films were constructed, after all, before the form had been taken over by slick image makers. The clips featured bizarre characters like the masked, jump-suited Booji Boy, low production values, and a gleefully satirical vision of consumerist America. Seeing them for the first time, you might have imagined their creators were subversive degenerates who cared not a whit for the established order of things. You would have been more or less right.
Nowadays, of course, Devo is better known as an iconic new-wave band because of hits like "Whip It". Mothersbaugh himself has spent a significant chunk of his time over the last 10-plus years scoring movies and television projects like the Rugrats TV series and movies. But he unleashes his subversive tendencies in visual art, one of his pursuits since he was seven. That was the age at which he was diagnosed as visually impaired and fitted with a pair of glasses that allowed him to experience the world in a new way.
"I have two studios here," says Mothersbaugh, reached at the Los Angeles office of his company, Mutato Musika. He's in the midst of final mixes of the soundtrack for an upcoming Jon Heder film called Mama's Boy. "One is a music studio and one is an art studio. I have my coproducer and engineer, Bob Casale, for the music stuff. I'll write cues for a film, and then while he's mixing it and cutting it into the movie, I go to the other room for two to three hours to work on art projects."
For the second time, Mothersbaugh's art is coming to Vancouver. From May 3 to 31, the JEM Gallery (225 East Broadway) will exhibit selections from his Postcard Diaries, a series mixing cartoonish drawings, photos, and words on nine-by-13-centimetre pieces of card stock. (Unfortunately, Mothersbaugh won't be on hand for the opening of his Vancouver show. Instead, he'll be in China, where he and his wife are adopting a visually impaired five-year-old.)
"I'd be doing the postcards even if I was in the back seat of a police car with my hands handcuffed behind me," says Mothersbaugh. "That's just some obsessive-compulsive thing that happens every day. It's contributing to a diary that is also an image and reference bank for me."
The miniatures, which he's been working on since the early days of Devo, are the starting points for larger projects; he'll go back to the postcards and elaborate on them. "It's kind of like taking sketches and snapshots and collecting ideas. It's more common to have one of those tape recorders you carry around. It's kind of like my version of that. Then, when I'm here, I pick images and think of things I want to do for gallery shows or for other things."
In Secret Voice Reach Inside, a man inserts his arm into a hole in a machine labelled Secret Voice. USA Super Punch depicts a pen-and-ink genie-type figure emerging from the fist of a photographed toy robot. In Mexi-Intestines, the head of a masked wrestler is superimposed on a medical illustration of internal organs.
With its cartoon characters and surreal juxtapositions, Mothersbaugh's visual work exhibits a definite underground-comics sensibility. This makes sense, considering the 57-year-old is a child of the '60s. "I grew up in Ohio, and it was kind of like a cultural wasteland when I was a kid," he recalls. "But there was one local head shop where we could get Zap Comix. I remember Robert Williams's Coochy Cootie strip. And when he was in junior high my younger brother–the first member of Devo to make films–was so impressed with Gilbert Shelton's Wonder Warthog he started his own head shop, Walrus, in Akron, Ohio. He was in 10th grade."
Devo was a product of its era as well. The band was formed following the Kent State University shootings in 1970; according to an interview on the Weird America Web site (www.weirdamerica.com/), that cataclysmic event prompted Kent students Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale to come up with the concept of "Devolution". Devo stopped touring and recording in 1991, although the group still plays a handful of dates each year.
"We had those yellow suits," says Mothersbaugh, recalling the group's early uniforms. "It looked like we had cheeseburger wrappers on us. We look pretty much the same now. Only 30 years ago, everyone was a single patty, and now there's a couple of double-patty burgers on-stage."