Postcard Diaries | The Visual Art of Mark Mothersbaugh

The music was cheaper than making films. It’s easier to do songs because all you need is a couple amps and a drum set and something that resembles a tape recorder, then you can do your work.


You can’t escape Devo. Even in the unlikely event that their seminal Q. Are We Not Men… LP was not the most often–requested album to be played by your college radio station, you still know who they are and recognize their tunes wherever they appear. What began as a visceral, art-school reaction to American apathy became a needling omnipresence in the cultural landscape. Media savvy and precocious, the band managed to infiltrate mainstream (un)consciousness with quirky songs that questioned conformity and consumerism. Have you seen a Target or Swiffer commercial? Then you know the work of Devo. Have you seen a Wes Anderson film? Then you’ve heard the influence of Mark Mothersbaugh.

As the band members progressed and followed their own muses, Mothersbaugh has continued to mine the veins of his inspiration: namely, the anomalies of everyday life. Writing/drawing postcards to himself, he gleans—from the prosaic waking moments of waiting and watching—the precious glimmering flakes that are to be found in each day. The Atomic Cowboy collected some of these golden flakes like a hoarfrost, and presents them for our edification, from December 15 through January 16. On the 22nd, those in the know attended the artist’s reception, sharing insights with the author/artist.

How did you get involved with the Atomic Cowboy?

It’s kind of funny, because I have never done a gallery show in St. Louis. I do about 35 gallery shows a year, for about 30 years now. A local, Amy Weinstein, who is a friend of my wife, knew we were coming back and said, “Why don’t you do an art show?” I really don’t know anything about this place; she is the one who made the connection. In the world of art, this is a very last-minute thing; we set it up about six weeks ago.

When did you become aware that you wanted to share your visual art with the public?

I was a visual artist, actually—I went to school to be a visual artist and that is where I met the Casales, who my brother and I started the band with. We never thought of ourselves as a band. In the beginning, we were making films and doing artwork, and doing music, too. The music was cheaper than making films. It’s easier to do songs because all you need is a couple amps and a drum set and something that resembles a tape recorder, then you can do your work. But with Devo, we did all our own graphics anyhow; we did all our own album covers. Back then there was no such thing as “promo videos.” We did all our own films, conceptualized them; nowadays, the bands have very little to do with their films. The record company hires some expensive production company and all they are is some flashy baby pictures. We were our own graphic artists all along. I did gallery shows before I had a band.

Your work is described as “visual diary.” What drives your imagery?

The things that inspire me to artwork are the frustrations, the weird situations of the day, the doublethink of the business I am in (or just about any business), interaction with humans, nightmares, bad food, traffic in L.A., all of the above.

With your postcards, did you send them out?

I used to; that’s why they were called postcards. I actually used to post them back in the early ’70s. I have been doing this since ’71 or ’72; in ’72, I started saving them.

How would you get them returned to you if you had mailed them out?

That’s the first thing: They don’t come back to you. What happened was, when I started seeing them as an overview, where they were telling a story in a pretty abstract way—just some scenes out of somebody’s life, somebody’s day, their waking life, their day, their dreaming hours. I started archiving them into notebooks 30 years ago. Now there are about 325 books in my library at home. There are all these red binders and each holds a hundred images.

I can be at a recording studio with a hundred-piece orchestra, sitting in the booth with the director, and producer, orchestrators—then, if there is a little downtime, I can work while I am there. And I have done that. And then these images, the ones that I like, the ones that people would find interesting, those are the ones that I scan and then put in the computer and work on them there: print them out, then paint on top of that and turn those into a small edition.

My intention is to invade peoples’ living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, whatever room where they would be willing to put one of these images.

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