Patterns of Mutation 

Mark Mothersbaugh’s digitally manipulated photographs are peculiar and well-crafted, but end up resorting to formula

Mark Mothersbaugh’s digitally manipulated photographs are peculiar and well-crafted, but end up resorting to formula

“Mark Mothersbaugh: Beautiful Mutants”

Through March 21 at TAG Art Gallery

Mark Mothersbaugh is best known as the founder and lead singer of DEVO, which emerged in the mid-’70s from one of his college art projects. But this notoriety overshadows his individual artistic accomplishments, which amount to nearly 30 years of prolific creative work. Mothersbaugh spent much of the 1990s composing scores for TV shows and films, including Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Rugrats: The Movie, and in 1999, he started his own music company, Mutato Muzika. Alongside his musical activities, Mothersbaugh has been exhibiting his artwork during the past two years. “Homefront Invasion!,” his first solo exhibit in 2003, prefigures “Beautiful Mutants,” his current touring exhibit now on view at TAG Art Gallery.

“Homefront Invasion!” and “Beautiful Mutants” reveal two different aspects of Mothersbaugh’s work. The first show compiles his obsessive postcard prints, drawings and illustrations, ranging in media from ink and paint to rubber stamps and stencils. All intensely rendered with rough scribbles, deep black lines and bright colors, the works look like scenes from comic books. Big-nosed or masked men battle octopuses and worms, alongside mutated babies with text reading, “My sickness most certainly IS contagious!” Described as “one man’s view of his culture,” the “Homefront” works serve as an open diary offering the artist’s comical commentary on the devolution of mankind—a running theme since the first DEVO album in 1978.

Refined and methodical where the previous show was wildly varied, “Beautiful Mutants” is a compilation of Mothersbaugh’s favorite “experiments” from the years 1999 to 2004. Drawing on his collection of 19th century photographs, Mothersbaugh used PhotoShop to mutate the pictured subjects into carnival freaks, conjoined twins and three-eyed children, lambs and kittens. Each is a unique creation, emphasized by the titles, which frequently include locations: “Two Teddies for a Happy Rabbit; Stow, Ohio,” “Seal Boy, State Road Shopping Center Traveling Freak Show.” In “Cyclo-Augen Pet” (augen being the German word for “eye”), a fattened young girl sits lazily with her malevolent-looking one-eyed rabbit. The space between her eyes is narrowed and awkward, her lips elongated in a peculiar smile, her body grossly stretched to reach both sides of the composition. The feathery hand-painted pastel-peaches and sky-blues hint at the sweetness of the original portrait, but Mothersbaugh has perverted childhood innocence into a creature that more closely resembles a glorified Garbage Pail Kid.

Although the works are digital, they look like authentic photographs from the Victorian era because of the high-quality materials and the technology the artist is using. Each piece is fixed on a velvety black matte with a deeply textured Civil War-era frame made from gutta-percha, a dark resinous substance. The resolution and capacity of Mothersbaugh’s scanner, computer and printer must be ridiculously high (and expensive), as he creates portraits as large as 36 inches by 24 inches without the slightest suggestion of a grain or pixel. This feat helps maintain the fake-authentic ambience of his work, blurring our perception between reality and fiction. However, this technology-reliant formula for success quickly becomes just that: formulaic and mechanized.

The number and similarity of Mothersbaugh’s “Beautiful Mutants” is both a positive and a negative. The more than 40 pieces at TAG—taken from thousands in the entire “Beautiful Mutants” series—offer us a glimpse into his curious world, and had the gallery been filled with one or two other artists’ works, the impact would have been dampened. With its hardwood floors, the gallery feels like an old, historic space, and viewing Mothersbaugh’s antique imagery makes us feel as if we are stepping back in time for a secret showing of these oddities. But as interesting and unique as the individual mutants are, the works become redundant as a series: They’re nearly all 19th century photographs of children spliced directly down the center to create a forced bilateral symmetry. The possibilities are endless, but how many times can you splice and rotate a baby before it loses interest? The artist relies on the intrigue and charm of the original imagery, but with his repetitive treatment, the individuality of each work becomes lost.

The mirroring in these works creates a Rorschach-like effect, and Mothersbaugh makes a direct reference to Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) in his artist’s statement. But the link is a stretch. Rorschach developed his inkblots as a diagnostic tool, a “test based on perception” using a complex system of codes to determine a patient’s mental state. Rorschach’s inkblots were absolutely abstract and could be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, while Mothersbaugh forces his imagery upon us. This is a controlled test of perception: We see either beauty or ugliness. The artist obviously wants us to identify with these creatures; these are children who do not belong, who would likely travel in carnival sideshows and grow up with abnormal, unprivileged lives. We cannot help but feel sympathetic toward their genetic inadequacies and social isolation, and this is precisely what makes them beautiful—their ability to stir our own feelings of not belonging. Beauty is the deformed, the odd, the misshapen, the unusual—and in some way, aren’t we all? “Beautiful Mutants” may be a well-crafted collection of fascinating oddities, but we don’t need to see dozens of digitally birthed carnival freaks to be reminded how bizarre (and, in turn, beautiful) we are.

Mothersbaugh wants to offer viewers a glimpse into the true nature of human beings. He believes that people are essentially asymmetrical creatures, much like a potato, and with this body of work, he considers himself more a social scientist than an artist. “People are hiding something,” he writes in his artist’s statement, but whether his ambitious, digitally manipulated images can reveal the truth beneath our skin is questionable. Mothersbaugh hopes that viewers can divorce themselves from the ancient pursuit for symmetry and balance, and instead see beauty in his mutants. His work is provocative and eccentric, even visually rich, but it drives home a simple conceit in simple terms, over and over again.

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