Reviewer: Zep the Bear
Art Talk: The Beginning Was the End
Feat: David Giffels & Jade Dellinger
Akron Art Museum
June 30, 2016 – 7:00 pm
The Director of Education for the Akron Art Museum, Alison Caplan, started the evening.
She recalled contacting David Giffels about ideas for events to run in support of Mark Motherbaugh’s current exhibit, Myopia.
“Book Pere Ubu to play.”
She grinned as she said she soon discovered that the band was more than slightly out of her working budget.
Instead, she opted to book the two guys who (literally!) wrote the book on Mark Mothersbaugh.
Caplan gave a quick rundown of the history of both men. Jade Dellinger is an academic gallery director in Florida and the proud owner of an original Andy Warhol. David Giffels is an associate professor of English at the University of Akron. Formerly, he was a columnist at the Akron Beacon Journal. Most notably, he is the author of four books.
Together, the two men wrote the definitive work about the band. Published in 2003, We Are DEVO! it is now out of print and highly collectible.
The Fake Interview
I have previously attended book readings by Giffels. He has an easy delivery and a quirky sense of humor, so I was not the least bit surprised when he suggested that the two “fake interview” each other on stage. Dellinger agreed.
DG: How did you come to an awareness of Mark Mothersbaugh?
Dellinger explained that he grew up in Florida. As a young man, he became interested in both music and art. He quickly became fascinated by the crossover of the two.
In 1999, he attended a DEVO reunion show in Los Angeles where he met Mothersbaugh. At the time he was working on an art project and approached Mothersbaugh about contributing to it. The musician agreed and produced a small piece. Mothersbaugh has since credited this with renewing his interest in art.
JD: How about you?
When he was a boy, Giffels’ mother loved Saturday Night Live. Each week he would watch it with her in his parents’ bedroom. One week DEVO was the musical guest. He found their performance to be sinister, robotic, and cartoony.
“It was this world-bending moment.”
He said it planted a twisted version of Akron in his head that he had never previously considered.
Later, while a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal, he began work on a book about the tire industry. He wanted to include a chapter in which he explored how the city informed the artists of the area, so he interviewed DEVO.
This planted the seed. He began researching the band in a serious manner. Despite this, he didn’t have the ambition or “next step” to move forward with a book exclusively about them.
Dellinger said that he was surprised that there already wasn’t a book about the group. He soon discovered that previous attempts by others to write one had failed. While he wanted to write a book about DEVO, he felt he had no business doing so. By this point, however, he had developed a relationship with Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale. The two encouraged him to forge ahead.
Soon after, he met an agent who got him inspired about the project.
Giffels recalled first meeting Dellinger at a band fan convention called “DEVOtional.” It was there Dellinger told Giffels that he had a deal for a book. Giffels wanted to write it and suggested that the two pair up. Dellinger would do the research that fed Giffels’ writing.
Giffels explained that once he began he looked for throughlines to base the Mothersbaugh narrative around. He traced the connecting point to Ghoulardi, a Cleveland-based television horror host from the mid-1960s. Other creative types like Jim Jarmusch and members of Pere Ubu grew up during the short lifespan of the program. Incredibly popular and hip, Ghoulardi represented a meeting of high and low culture.
It was on Ghoulardi’s show that Mothersbaugh saw films like The Island of Lost Souls, from which he procured the “Are we not men?” line.
Other factors like Eddie Elias’ Pro Bowlers Association (PBA) and Chi-Chi Rodriquez informed his work.
Giffels also pointed out that Kent State University was key to the development of Mothersbaugh and the band. Besides the obvious revolutionary vibe leading in and out of the May 4th shootings, Kent was a nurturing location for a young artist.
Giffels described it as “a cultural oasis between New York and Chicago.” The ubiquitous film Pink Flamingos was screened there. DEVO opened for the picture. That synergy made the time and place feel special.
He remembered a review by former Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, who noted in a city like Akron no one cares what you do. Plus, there are garages. This means that it gives artists time and space to develop. When DEVO took the stage on SNL in 1978 they were a fully formed band.
DG: What was Mark’s seminal moment as an artist?
Dellinger explained that Mothersbaugh had poor eyesight as a child. He was essentially blind. Once he got glasses, he zeroed in on visual art.
JD: What is his formative moment?
Giffels felt that the key moment to Mothersbaugh’s (and DEVO’s) central identity was when he discovered the “Booji Boy” mask at a novelty shop.
“I don’t think he was a natural performer. He and Casale had a Lennon/McCartney dynamic. Mark was a shy, retiring artist-type. The mask allowed him to put it on and lose his inhibitions.”
The mask represented the childlike innocence he has always retained.
The true Mark.
JD: Talk about early support (for the band) by the community.
Kate Myers was an early fan of the band. She paid for the production of The Truth About De-Evolution, which proved to be a major launching pad for the group.
The Packard Gallery also showed an exhibit of Mothersbaugh’s work very early on in his career.
“Probably only 100 people were aware of the band early on…but they were important people.”
Q & A
“The Lame Question”
At this point, Giffels threw to the crowd for questions.
If there was no DEVO, who would Mothersbaugh have become as an artist?
Dellinger felt that he would have concentrated on printmaking and his mail art.
Giffels stated that you can’t underestimate the contribution of Casale and Bob Lewis to Motherbaugh’s success.
“The most talented people aren’t always the most successful. The people who make it want it the most.”
He thinks that Mark Mothersbaugh would have still been an artist but would have had a day job.
What was the hardest thing to research?
DG: “The stuff they didn’t want in there.”
They learned things about the band that, in turn, soured their relationship with them.
JD: “(DEVO) had defined their narrative early on, so the truth didn’t necessarily jibe.”
What was the most fun part of researching the book?
DG: “The fun was digging deep and finding what a great story it is. How a group of super smart, creative people develop this over-cooked idea that actually takes off.”
There were a few other questions about Jerry Casale’s art, the recent passing of Mothersbaugh’s father, and the band’s feelings about the city.
Like previously stated, I’ve seen Giffels before. He is an engaging speaker. He knows how to deliver a story with a punchline.
Dellinger is more reserved but chimed in with interesting tidbits as needed.
This was a snappy 60-minute interview.
I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more about Mothersbaugh’s art career…but then again most attendees came to her about the band. I may be wrong, but I highly doubt that the museum would be running an exhibition of the guy without the hook of his legendary music career.
I didn’t go into detail in my review, but I like that Dellinger and Giffels didn’t put too great a shine on the band. They weren’t afraid to mention that the members didn’t like what the pair uncovered during their research. Hell, the writing duo was threatened with litigation at one point.
They also didn’t put a cheap coat of paint on the band’s opinion of the city. Akron, a Midwestern town that is perennially in search of validation, holds no special place in their hearts. They got out as soon as possible and, essentially, never looked back.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia will be running at the Akron Art Museum until August 28, 2016