Mothersbaugh's Antique Freaks
Devo's front man fashions beautifully creepy images from archival photos
When I think Mark Mothersbaugh, the image that comes to mind is more postapocalyptic than Victorian. The frontman for prevolution New Wave heroes Devo has been producing visual art since forever, but most often in styles similar to the visual iconography of his landmark band: twisted, disquieting comic-strip takes on classic images that could've fallen right out of some Fifties pulp or dime-store novel not unlike the work of R. Crumb, Roy Tompkins, or Lynda Barry. That made "Beautiful Mutations," the tour of his art that has hit Austin for SXSW, a sweet surprise for me. Soaking in the ambience of Mothersbaugh's work at the Escapist Bookstore was like being sucked back in time through the unforgiving viewfinder of a turn-of-the-century stereoscope loaded with portrait sittings of freakshow stars. But Mothersbaugh's reasonably priced (insanely so!) limited-edition prints aren't vintage shots of circus freaks or physical mutations. Rather, they're disturbingly altered antique photographs that recall the same era from which those first images of human oddity come. Mothersbaugh enhances and personalizes these anonymous archival images by finding a center point, slicing down the middle, and filling in the other half with an identical mirror image. The effect is positively creepy and chillingly beautiful. Innocent photos of children become surreal portraits of phantom limbs, cleft palates, and cycloptic kiddos, all aching for attention and love. At first glance, some of these constructs pass for actual portraits, while some simply make pretty patterns. In Morbido, what initially seems to be a simple, graphic-arty effect creating a fleur-de-lis on a bed of ecstatic brocade is really a section of a baby's head in a wee coffin. In the distressingly lovely The Petting Zoo, a little girl is enjoying the rear end of a fawn, a fawn that only has rear ends, two actually, and her twin sister is enjoying the other one ... It would be easy to snicker and lose oneself in the naughty sexual and bestial overtones of such images, but that would do a great disservice to the forms themselves, which play off an aesthetic at least as elegant as it is perverse. And yes, just by virtue of the fact that these works are created with mirror imaging, there's at least one yoni in each picture. Yow!
"Beautiful Mutations" continues through May 1 at the Escapist Bookstore, 2209 S. First Ste. D. For more information, call 912-1777 or visit www.escapistbookstore.com.