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Murky Reflections

Are Mark Mothersbaugh's Doctored Photographs Cunning Manipulations or Just Visual Parlor Tricks?

Hellboy: "Henry Ford III, Original Bad Boy of Detroit"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/19/2004

Beautiful Mutants

Beautiful Mutants

At Mission Space through June 12

The truly weird thing about Mark Mothersbaugh's digital prints in Beautiful Mutants isn't their strangeness. His works are portraits of Victorian oddities--a one-eyed child with four hands, a deer with two hindquarters but no head, and babies whose still nascent heads are even more bizarre than the normal freakishness of everyday babies. Either their skulls are misshapen to elongated teardrops, or their eyes are too far apart, or their noses are unseemly broad, or their mouths are button-sized ovals. Or their noses, eyes, and mouths are missing entirely. Everything is all a little bit off, but it's not distancing at all. In fact, it all feels exceptionally normal.

Beautiful Mutants is normal in the mercilessly ordinary sense of the word, and hopefully that's not the entire point. For these prints, Mothersbaugh cropped old portrait photographs--old as in sepia-tone black-and-whites and 19th-century processes such as the daguerreotype and its less-expensive substitute the ambrotype--and digitally reflected them across some axis, creating a single image from two perfectly symmetrical halves. This axis is rarely the assumed vertical midline that divides a photo or a face--slightly skewing the image away from the vertical is what produces the stretched, elongated distortion of soft shapes such as eyes and mouths--but it's always easy to locate if you're looking. You can spot the dividing line between the two mirror images creating the bilaterally symmetrical headless deer in "Petting Zoo," but, thing is, you have to remind yourself to search for it. The eyes and the brain conspire to smooth it all together into an animal whose existence you don't question.

The source photos' antiquity grease that mental acceptance, too. People, places, and things in old photos just look different. The smoky amber hues and eccentric colors of the painted-on processes abstract the imagery a few degrees from anything that corresponds to the familiar. And, well, anybody who ever leafed through National Geographic, thumbed through early anthropology books from Franz Boas or Bronislaw Malinowski, or visited the anatomical anomalies held by the Mütter Museum or the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology's National Museum of Health and Medicine know that since the advent of the camera human beings have taken pictures of some pretty dodgy things.

Mothersbaugh isn't coy about tapping into that natural-history element with these prints. They're all fitted into velvety black mattes in stately but unobtrusive frames and accompanied by plain texts that act more like descriptive captions than serious Art World titles. The one-eyed boy with four hands is "Fairfax Country Cyclops Boy"; a seemingly, and eerily, undistorted portrait of a young girl wearing a dress and a string of pearls is "Girl With Pearls."

Such understated obviousness is the spoonful of sugar that helps the most disorienting manipulations go down. Next to the only slightly tweaked specimens of the 45 prints, "Baby Blow Hole" feels right at home. A portrait of a baby's head slanted and disenchanted into a fishing-weight-shaped glob with two mouths, a nose with a trident of nostrils, and a curved triangle of an eye that's practically all iris and pupil, "Baby Blow Hole" is a bona fide mutated creature that the show's title suggests. All the curious children (the girl practically emerging from a bear's stomach in "Furs"), tadpole boys ("Baby Boss"), and funny-looking infants ("Baby Curl") have nothing on the poor whatever it is in "Baby Blow Hole."

Yes, whatever it is: In "Baby Blow Whole" and a few other prints--such as the practically conjoined head (and nothing else) in "Head Cheese, Circa 1888"--Mothersbaugh has pulled off a blithe transmogrification of using human bits to make inhuman wholes, but given the "beautiful" in the show's title, you hope the co-founder of the totally serious shenanigans of Devo wants to say something less X-Men than freaks are people, too. While there's a certain thematic pun to using perfectly symmetrical imagery to reveal an asymmetrical self--the mirrored imaged is a strained reach to Rorshach inkblot tests--it's an idea with which the work only flirts. Artists have used photography to exploit and exacerbate the tension between the real and the imaginary for decades now, and Mothersbaugh's digital-print experiments of 1999-2004, which produced these pieces, do have something to say about how we literally and figuratively see the photographic past, but he hasn't decided what he has to say. As is, the works in Beautiful Mutants are merely cleverly amusing, the equivalent of a somebody standing perpendicular to a full-length mirror and moving one arm and leg, a vaudeville illusion of swimming in place.

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