Inspired by carnival mirrors which he collected, he began working on a series of mutant photos, manipulating them with Photoshop.
"I started taking pictures of people, and I became interested that you could split a face right down the middle," he says. "Almost all the time, one half would look younger and prettier and more angelic. The other half would look more grotesque and evil and that was fascinating to me."
He used tintypes and daguerreotypes.
"I started looking for those images that would be in a frame or a leather pouch that Civil War soldiers would carry," he says. "They could fit in a pocket. When I took my images and put them in the cases, it transported you to another world."
He even wrote a movie script about the process.
"You never know, maybe someday I'll film it," he laughs.
One of the most notable "beautiful mutants" involves a car. The automobile manufacturer Scion asked him to paint one of their vehicles. Everyone was doing it, they told him, in an effort to convince him to join artists such as Shepard Fairey.
"I didn't want to paint, but I told them I would paint two cars and cut them in half and make a car with two fronts and another car with two backs. Somehow they talked to someone who let me do it. I did, and I put two front ends together and it looked great. I put the two back ends together and that's in the [upcoming] show."
The front end showed up at the L.A. Convention Center when it was being unloaded from a truck, and the guys who work for him had to steer it. It's a convention center so there was a big floor.
"They were showing off," says Mothersbaugh. "This one guy was doing these spinning cups and everyone was laughing and the Scion people walked in and saw it and wanted to crush the car and destroy it. They did. They took it from me. They thought someone would sue them. That wasn't what the intention of letting me cut two cars in half was about. I didn't have an agent, and I still don't, so I didn't have someone who could have warned me about it."
Postcards from the Edge
While Mothersbaugh might have abandoned his mutation series, his postcard series is alive and well. In fact, the day we interview him, he says he just added to the collection at 1:15 that morning. He says even after his vision was corrected, he still gravitated toward small drawings. If he tried to do a big painting, the perspective was off and he'd have to project the image onto a canvas and then sketch and color it. Postcards didn't require the same amount of prep.
"I had a great time at Kent State in the art world," he says when asked about the genesis of his postcard art. "In the process, I found out that there were people around the world who liked to exchange mail art. They used their post office. There were no computers and cell phones. It was a valuable form of communication. With postal art, the whole idea was there would be people who handle it and could see whatever you do."
That meant the audience wasn't just the person who received the card but also the person who handled the card and everyone who might see it. Mothersbaugh calls it an "incidental audience."
"It was empowering to me that I could take a postcard and put artwork on it and put an address for [artists such as] Robert Jasper or Robert Indiana or Irene Dogmatic in San Francisco. You could send them something in the mail and nine out of 10 times they would send you something back. Even though he never met me, the fact that he reacted to my artwork was an empowering feeling. We had no internet and there was no such thing as Youtube or MP3s you could send out. That was a big thing. I would make this art and send to my friends and about a year into it, I realized they could be lyrics to a song or an album cover or art when we were playing a show and could be a poster."
Since he had been a stamp collector, he knew there were binders that would hold 100 pieces of paper this size. He bought those binders and used them to store his postcards. He still has a shelf full of red binders at his studio space. While they're not necessarily in chronological order, Mothersbaugh says they serve as a sort of diary.
"There are some that I drew when I was living on a houseboat on the Thames for three weeks," he says. "People would say crazy stuff to us. We were interacting with William Burroughs and Timothy Leary and Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell and all these people. I was impressed by them. I would write down things they said."
On one postcard, he drew a picture that represented the meeting he had with Warner Bros. records.
"Then, we were touring and wouldn't live anywhere and it was easy to be sitting backstage or in an airplane or in a car," he says. "You have two hours when you're on stage and 22 hours getting to the next place, and I couldn't stand wasting that much time. If I have to write music and wait for an engineer, I can't wait. I had to do something else. I kept those cards and kept making them through all those years. It just stayed with me beyond that."
Back to the Beginning
Mothersbaugh first met Myopia's curator Adam Lerner in 2011 after Devo performed at the Denver county fair. He had gotten a message that Lerner, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, wanted to talk to him about visual artist Bruce Conner.
"He made the second Devo video where he took the song 'Mongoloid' and cut all sorts of collage footage to it from some great, crazy, old ad graphics and science graphics," says Mothersbaugh. "It was a really great film."***
Conner assigned himself to be the band's escort in San Francisco when the group was driving around in a van and sleeping in it and playing clubs. Mothersbaugh and Lerner talked about Conner, and Lerner asked what Mothersbaugh was doing.
"I told him that in the last 10 years I had done 125 gallery shows," says Mothersbaugh.
The MO was the same. As Mothersbaugh explains, the gallery operators were kids who were excited about art and had just got out of college. They knew they would soon start working at Walmart doing ad graphics. But before selling their souls to corporate America, they would open a gallery in "some part of town where the people who buy art — the dentists and the lawyers and the doctors — wouldn't want to go.
"They'd open a little storefront gallery and put their friends' art work on the wall," says Mothersbaugh. "They'd buy a keg of beer and their 30 friends would come over. They couldn't get a review in the Saginaw News. It was symbiotic for us. I was in the middle of working in Hollywood in the belly of the beast. I would work with people on movies. They would complain that the actors they hired were jerks, or they'd be talking about the money. Nothing was about the art. I was missing what I had when I was a kid that age, when I was first inspired to be an artist: that camaraderie and that sense that the art comes first. I loved this thing where I could connect with people getting out of college and they were still excited about art."
Mothersbaugh says the shows were easy to book, and although he couldn't send them original paintings, he had a website where they posted pictures from the gallery openings. He couldn't attend most of them, but he'd Skype; and if it was on the East Coast, the show would open when it was dinner time for him.
"My kids would see the show too and they'd remember certain pieces," he says. "We'd see the artwork on the wall and people could talk to me and I could talk to them."
Lerner loved the concept and came to L.A.
"He came over and walked around in here and saw that I had a room dedicated to drawing," says Mothersbaugh. "I draw every day, and I take images I really like and put them in Photoshop. If I really like them, I blow them up and print them. I showed him where I kept stuff and where I have a collection of warehouse spaces. Looking through it, he felt this urge to organize it and make a show out of it, which is great."
Mothersbaugh confesses that he's dreamt that all his art might be lost. Myopia puts some of those fears to rest.
"I always had these mental images that I had passed away and my wife was walking around wearing a veil and looking stylish and she's showing some moving people the house," he explains. "She's saying, 'You can take the clothes to Goodwill.' And she walks into the library and at the time there were 300 red journals that I started back in the '70s in Akron. I would put my images in them."
He says he can imagine his wife telling the movers to simply take the notebooks to the dump.
"My dream would end and I was in the trash watching a dump trunk lift up and all these red books would come tumbling out and they'd be in there with banana peels," he says. "I thought that was the fate, so when [Lerner] said, 'Let's do a show,' I was shocked. He had enough energy and enthusiasm to create this show that I titled Myopia. Not everything I have has been archived, but I can't think about it. I just need to keep moving forward."
As we walked into his studio, he was just talking to another museum about constructing some sculptures for a commission and for another show.
"They're musical sculptures," he explains. "I created them using bird calls and orphaned organ pipes and doorbells. After working with every kind of a band and then every kind of an orchestra, I get to work with big bands with 100 people and duets and quartets. I like all that stuff, but I got fascinated with eccentric instruments and have collected things through the years."
Mothersbaugh says it's particularly gratifying to have an exhibit in Northeast Ohio.
"It's coming full circle," he says. "I was in Cincinnati with it at the beginning of the year. Cincinnati is dear to me because they had Queen City Records. They pressed our first record. I remember getting in a car one day and we were going to pick up the vinyl. I remember driving to Cincinnati and the closer we got, the more excited we got, and we were sweating. We got these boxes and we would rip the box open and were holding up this single that said, 'Jocko Homo/Mongoloid.' I remember looking at it and thinking, 'We're really artists.' There are all these things that connect us with Ohio. Cleveland was our first trip out of Akron. It felt like such a monumental thing."
And coming back to Cleveland still represents a "monumental thing," perhaps more for art patrons here than for Mothersbaugh. The kicker: When Mothersbaugh returns to Northeast Ohio later this month for the opening of Myopia, he won't have to worry about angry fans throwing beer bottles at his head.