New York

Mark Mothersbaugh

Psychedelic Solution Gallery

There is a peculiar strain of media-inspired art today, often overlooked and generally misunderstood as some funky latter-day offshoot of Pop art. A new generation of image makers has been producing its own ultimate vernacular of our disposable popular culture that is a good deal less tame than Pop and subsequent fine-art hybrids of kitsch Americana. Experimenting with various art forms for over a decade now, Mark Mothersbaugh has struck the raw nerve of our accelerating media frenzy and reorganized the patterns of psychic disruption that it engenders. His recent retina-zapping show of silkscreen prints provided a clear contrast to the academically dry discourse of the simulationists, commodifiers, and other practitioners of currently fashionable fine-art genres.

Mothersbaugh takes off on the fantasy-grotesque aspects of the overloaded sensory circuits of America’s brain-fried children. The works in this show are like individual miniature media melees, each combining a wide assortment of commercial and comic-book images, compositionally arranged with attention to a smart, appealing packaging design and to the collision of meanings and associations supplied by the disparate images. The presentation was visually electric, employing variable lighting conditions—an alternating sequence of black light, darkness, fluorescent light, darkness, etc.—to reveal different motifs. Printed in various combinations of fluorescent, phosphorescent, metallic, and/or black ink, they frequently contain “hidden” shapes or figures that are clearly visible under only one of these conditions (e.g., a peace symbol in Peace Train, a piece of fried chicken in Non-Toxic, both from “Postcard Superheroes Series #001,” 1985). This fractured sensory assault added a certain videolike kineticism to the prints while it simultaneously exposed and exploited the mass media’s techniques of subliminal manipulation.

After studying printmaking in the late ’60s, Mothersbaugh began his career as co-founder (with Jerry Casale) of the rock band Devo, which erupted out of the artificial candied pablum of the mid ’70s and became an international success. Devo, one of the few interesting and vital forces at that time in popular music, was conceived as a total ensemble of style and content, with lyrics, music, concert staging, clothing, videos, and album graphics all developed as part of an overall artistic vision. The band’s name was a short form of the term “de-evolution,” their wicked tongue-in-cheek theory that our hypertechnological advancement as a civilization is actually a collapse, or regression, into chaos.

Although Mothersbaugh dropped the particular mock rhetoric of Devo in his subsequent work, there is still the same flip declaration of the silly and childish that gives free rein to his unabashedly puerile sense of humor. For “Postcard Superheroes Series #001,” he appropriated adventure comics images from ’50s Japanese “tattoo” transfers, which he enlarged, recolored, and screened to look like computer-generated cartoons, and mixed them with juvenile greeting-card figures, crossword puzzles, commercial labels, and postage stamps. In other works there are goofy drawings that express lowbrow sexual, scatological, and violent humor. “Mythological Goddesses of the Future,” 1985, a series of girlie photos altered with dadaist graffiti, is typical of the clumsy, primitive wit that Mothersbaugh paraded throughout the show.

Much of this is deliberately sophomoric bathroom humor, the antagonistic vulgarity of which is intended partly as a slap in the face to complaisant artistic standards, an attitude that Mothersbaugh shares with several other artists from Los Angeles. These esthetic mutants—including Gary Panter, Mike Kelly, Georganne Deen, Robert Williams, Raymond Pettibon, Bob (Hope) Zoel, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth—base their art on such lowly ingredients as junk food, Saturday-morning cartoons, drugs, wrestling, advertising, and rock ’n’ roll and represent the true voice of youth culture. While they are each quite distinct, all embrace a cartoonlike graphic style and an adolescent spirit that are generally met with disapproval in the pantheon of fine art, and with which they have produced some of the most bizarre and imaginative (if somewhat naughty) art of our times.

Reviewed by Carlo McCormick.