Beauty is an annoyingly subjective thing. The difference between a ravishingly lovely face and an ass-ugly one can literally be a matter of mere centimeters; one girl is so hot that she makes men weep in the street, while her fraternal twin is left sitting alone by the phone on Friday nights because her nose zigs where it should have zagged. We are told it is symmetry that makes us look appealing to our fellow monkeys: The more our lefts and our rights are in agreement, the more likely it is that other people will want to give us good jobs and mate with us (preferably not in that order). You don't got symmetry, you don't got jack.
But "Beautiful Mutants," Mark Mothersbaugh's new show at the Grand Central Art Center's Project Room, makes you wonder if symmetry is really all that. The subjects of Mothersbaugh's photographic manipulations are absolutely symmetrical—yet somehow, when you look at them, you don't feel even slightly compelled to give them good jobs or mate with them. Symmetry, taken to a certain point, gives you Angelina Jolie. But if you take symmetry too far, you end up with Mothersbaugh's world, a place filled with crazy kaleidoscope monster people.
Remember when you were a kid and your mom would take you and your siblings clothes shopping, and while your mom was busy trying on bras, you'd amuse one another outside the changing rooms by playing games with the big mirrors? You could peek part of your head out from behind the mirror in such a way that you became a cyclops kid, with two mouths. Maybe your brother or sister would stand behind you and you'd do a Kali routine, with arms waving all over the place and feet that stuck straight out, without touching the floor. Mothersbaugh's pictures look like a more-sophisticated version of those mirror games. They have that same sense of grotesque, transgressive fun, of twisting the human body into hideous but hilarious shapes.
Mothersbaugh's work is lavishly presented, with some lush, sepia-toned images interspersed with more bold, primary colors. A pleasantly old-timey, Mark Ryden-ish vibe predominates. Mothersbaugh has put together a show that's ugly in a beautiful way. Unfortunately, its fascination lasts about as long as those old mirror games; after 20 minutes of "Beautiful Mutants," you've seen all you need to see, and you get that old sense of waiting for Mom to be done with the bras, already, so you can go home. Despite the clever titles and the impressive surface dazzle of it all, you're inescapably reminded of your own late-night dabblings with Photoshop. Yes, this stuff looks better by several orders of magnitude than the stuff you did when you were goofing around with the slides of your Grand Canyon vacation. But maybe, if you'd really taken the time to do something special with the cut-and-paste, you could have had a gallery show, too.
Or maybe not. After all, you're not Mark Mothersbaugh, founding member of Devo, alt-culture icon and ubiquitous soundtrack composer (the guy's work has turned up everywhere from The Royal Tenenbaums to Rugrats). When celebs turn to the visual arts, it's a rare thing for the results to be anything less than embarrassing; for every one of Peter Falk's charming, Toulouse-Lautrec-ian sketches, you get two of those ghastly Red Skelton clowns, or half a dozen of Tina Louise's childlike scribblings. (Don't even get us started on Buddy Ebsen's depressing "folk art" portraits of his Beverly Hillbillies character, Uncle Jed—those things look like murals you'd see on outhouse walls.) You look at most of the art by famous folks, and you only think, Don't quit your day job.
Mothersbaugh is definitely a cut above, as celebrity artists go. This is fun stuff, executed with flair. This is the man who gave us "Mongoloid," for heaven's sake. Decades hence, when Motherbaugh's visual art is all but forgotten, people will still be drunkenly singing along to the story of the hard-working guy with one chromosome too many. That's a legacy to be proud of, right there.
"BEAUTIFUL MUTANTS" AT THE GRAND CENTRAL ART CENTER'S PROJECT ROOM, 125 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. CALL FOR HOURS. THROUGH OCT. 21.
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