New York

Bruce Conner, Booji Boy: Devo, May 1978, 2011, ink-jet print, 28 x 21". From “Mark  Mothersbaugh: Myopia.”

Bruce Conner, Booji Boy: Devo, May 1978, 2011, ink-jet print, 28 x 21". From “Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia.”

Mark Mothersbaugh

Grey Art Gallery

Bruce Conner, Booji Boy: Devo, May 1978, 2011, ink-jet print, 28 x 21". From “Mark  Mothersbaugh: Myopia.”

Best known as cofounder, singer, and keyboardist of archetypal art band Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh has cut a singular path through the intersecting margins of art and popular culture. Born (1950) and raised in Akron, Ohio, the artist spent his formative years, which were marked by creative inclination, subjected to the kind of banal cruelties routinely administered by boomer jocks to nerdy, bespectacled kids. (Mothersbaugh has severe myopia.) In a podcast interview with comedian Marc Maron, recorded on the occasion of this exhibition, Mothersbaugh describes his experience of kindergarten through twelfth grade as a “nightmare,” a prolonged endurance of normative persecution. By contrast, his art school years at Kent State University provided the intellectual nourishment and spiritual encouragement to be, whether by nature or lack of nurture, funny, critical, and weird. He seems to have been on a burn ever since.

Rolling out a representative sampling of Mothersbaugh’s multifarious practice, curator Adam Lerner assembled a tasty array of drawings, prints, videos, textiles, sculptures, and performance artifacts, along with roughly 30,000 postcard-size, diaristic works displayed in clear-sleeved books that viewers could flip through. The postcard sketches, emerging from an apparently compulsive and therapeutic processing of ideas, range widely in content, medium, and approach. Cartoon grotesquerie features heavily, as does graphic textual overlay, absurdist montage, and iconographic detournement. Unhinged and uninhibited, Mothersbaugh gets his freak on, externalizing the internal monologue as purgative and raw material for his numerous other projects. These unprecious, provocative works bristle with a piercing candor that cuts through the psychic grease and colors pretty much everything this artist does.

Mothersbaugh lobbed into Kent State in 1968, at the zenith of the counterculture. He and his cohorts embraced the hippie ethos, finding space within its open-endedness for their experimental horseplay and mordant social critiques. Two years into his studies, the infamous Kent State massacre cast a pall over the prevailing peacenik utopianism, catalyzing, legend has it, the theory of de-evolution that became the thematic foundation of the collective theatrical activities eventually taking shape as Devo. As Lerner notes in his catalogue essay, the band arose not as a scornful reaction against the failures and falsities of the counterculture (a myth of punk origin commonly attached to Devo) but as a response to its brutal suppression.

Among the many arresting exhibits in this show, the “Orchestrations” sculptures, 2014–, cannot pass without mention. Batty, homemade contraptions that spout surprising, and surprisingly harmonious, not-quite-musical sounds—a computer-sequenced chorus of electronically activated, analog bird whistles, for instance—these ridiculously charming noise machines circumfused the gallery with a comical dusting of Dadaist nonsensicality. But the most profound and affecting works for me were the Devo music videos and associated props and documentation. The parodic skewering of robotic, postwar conformism—and the spectacle abetting it—by the idiot-pop-star gyrations of Mothersbaugh and Co. in matching radiation suits is about as potent a de/sublimation and mockery of Reagan-era angst as one could imagine. That they managed to become an international pop sensation in the process is beyond remarkable.

Though identifying art-historically with the theatrical end of the European avant-garde—most notably, Futurist opera and Dada performance—and drawing inspiration from the extra-gallery exploits of Robert Smithson and Allan Kaprow, both of whom cycled through the Kent State visiting-artists program, Mothersbaugh, like many (if not most) of his generation of heartland American artists, was, at base, a TV-land subject whose aesthetic coordinates derived primarily from popular culture. He certainly engaged the language of pop in his art, but also its methods and means, initially churning out posters and stickers, now working in film and television. From the outset, Mothersbaugh gravitated toward a milieu that wished to locate art in life. He sought an expansive, expressive art, an art with purchase on social realities, an art of culture. That all culminated magnificently in Devo. This exhibition gave us the before, during, and after, pulling back to reveal a bounty of cool cultural activity, both solo and collaborative. Mothersbaugh is an artistic powerhouse. In addition to the many accomplishments mentioned here, he has also scored dozens of TV shows and movies, none more apt, given the magnitude of his success, than Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise

Jeff Gibson