The Devious Whimsy of Mark Mothersbaugh

It would be difficult not to enjoy at least one portion of the incredible mass of work by Mark Mothersbaugh, whose first retrospective is on display at the Grey Art Gallery in Washington Square, New York City.

The most overwhelming portion, for me at least, is a multi-tiered table displaying over 30,000 postcards in photo albums, postcards that the artist created and amassed over the past three decades, some vintage which he purchased and then doodled over, some apparently just his doodles.  The sheer volume is made clear by the multi-tiered table, a vast majority of the albums inaccessible to the viewer.  This is surrounded by larger-scale drawings of the same aesthetic: quickly sketched cartoons, some whimsical, some serious, some drawn atop text, some involving collage.  In total, they reveal an incredibly inquisitive artistic mind, if not a wondrously prolific doodler.

All images copyright Mark Mothersbaugh. Photographed by John Tilley.

And what delightful doodles they are, studies of the blunt imagery and cool lines of comic books, their colors inky and vibrant.  These elements crystallize to great effect in the rugs of the next room, where a few surrealistic postcard drawings have been printed on the luscious texture of doormat-style rugs which hang on the wall, each with a video monitor beside which has the same image as on the rug, but on the monitor comes to life every few moments in a short-lived cartoon.

This coming-to-life — such a tickling surprise — is repeated in a rather bizarre sculptural installation.  Three cylindrical pieces that look at first glance like so many junk sculptures, are, upon closer inspection, machines that are clearly functional in some capacity. 

All images copyright Mark Mothersbaugh. Photographed by John Tilley.

Wait awhile and they will reveal their purpose to you: made from pipes of old church organs, as well as one piece compiled from various whistles and noise makers, the pieces, controlled by a kind of switchboard, will play an off-key pseudo-song, the noise makers recreating bird noises.  The gallery becomes, for a few moments, a Dr. Seuss-ian jungle.


All images copyright Mark Mothersbaugh. Photographed by John Tilley.

If you didn’t already know (I didn’t), Mark Mothersbaugh was a member of the iconic 80s band DEVO, and a decent portion of the retrospective appropriately dedicates itself to his career and imagistic contribution to the now-legend musical scene of the 80s.  The video monitors showing music videos are especially pleasing, particularly because they are surrounded by photos, album packaging and band costumes.  The viewer can feel the vibrant nexus of art, music, fashion, and film where Mothersbaugh flourishes.

But don’t leave without visiting the basement.  Displayed like reliquaries at The Cloisters, precious antique lockets have been made subject to the artist’s nefarious whimsy: adding a line of symmetry which creates a mirror of only one side of the photograph, he renders the photographs and their preciousness absurd.  There are a few other choice pieces in the basement — audio from Wes Andersen films, a sculpture of an ice cream cone made from the largest ruby ever found — but the silly photographs are central. 

Putting it mildly: your brain will tingle.


Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia

Grey Art Gallery

100 Washington Square East

New York, NY10003

On view until July 15th


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