Art reference

The complex legacy of Daniel Johnston’s art — Sightlines

As it did with the popular Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo) exhibition in 2016 (which also crossed over to SXSW), Contemporary Austin showcases another artist who straddles genres and fits Austin’s status as a city of music.

On view until March 20, 2022 and organized by the Contemporary, “I Live My Broken Dreams” is the first museum investigation highlighting the visual art of Daniel Johnston (1961-2019). Known to many as a singer-songwriter and musician, Johnston practiced the art from an early age.

Johnston was born in Sacramento but raised in West Virginia. Despite having a fundamentalist Christian upbringing, he himself nurtured pop culture passions such as monster movies, TV variety shows, and comic books. Leaning into Marvel comics, Johnston learned to draw by imitating comic book style and copying characters. His curiosity for art history and art making continued in high school and he briefly attended art school at a branch of the University of Kent.

Daniel Johnston, “It’s Over”, 2009. Pen and colored marker on card stock. 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Artwork © Daniel Johnston. Courtesy of the Daniel Johnston Trust. Image courtesy of the Daniel Johnston Trust.

Legend has it that in the 1980s, Johnston came to Austin as a carnival worker and just decided to stay. He got a job at a McDonald’s in Dobie Center (aka Dobie Mall) on The Drag – a strip of Guadalupe near the University of Texas – and started recording his music on cassette tapes, designing custom covers with his drawings and distribute them to various people around the city.

Befriending all walks with his outwardly serious personality and flirtatious songs, Johnston was known for his self-introduction, “Hi, I’m Daniel Johnston, and I’m going to be famous.” His prediction came to pass when he appeared on an episode of MTV’s “The Cutting Edge,” filmed in Austin. And yes, his association with an even bigger star, Kurt Cobain, was probably the tipping point. In 1992, Cobain wore a Daniel Johnston, “Hi, How Are You?” t-shirt (from Johnston’s 1983 self-released music cassette album) at the MTV Music Awards. The following year, the message “Hi, how are you?” (aka “Jeremiah the Innocent”) depicting Johnston’s frog with antenna-like eyes and a salutary message was displayed in the Sound Exchange (formerly Record Exchange) store at Guadalupe and 21st streets.

Word spread and now the hippest in music wanted to work with Johnston. Collaborators included the Butthole Surfers, members of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Mark Kramer of the band Bongwater to name a few. The even longer list of those who have covered his songs includes Beck, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Jad Fair, The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and TV on the Radio.

Daniel Johnson
Daniel Johnston, “Grievance Retired,” ca. 1980-82. Pen and colored marker on rough paper. 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Collection of Lee Foster, New York. Image courtesy of the Daniel Johnston Trust.

Johnston’s music and visual art are inseparable, addressing the same themes. Most of the drawings presented in the Contemporaries exhibition are made in pen or marker on 8 ½” x 11” paper. While Johnston’s designs began as imitative, they evolved into a complex matrix of iconography that was extremely personal and visually infectious. Patterns include: ducks, eyeballs (in multiples or disembodied), human heads that open to the crown, skulls, female nudes, especially torsos (limbless and usually headless), such as s ‘they came from the sculpture, his lost love Laurie, Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost, which is usually used in connection with religious ideas – the battle between good and evil – horned devils and figures of Jesus.

One design depicts a Jesus-like figure dressed in a multi-colored striped robe with outstretched hands in the pose of a magician. With text that says “Jesus as Vampire” and a speech bubble that says “Al La Kazam!” Johnston connects art, religion and magic. Johnston mischievously captures the deeds of the prophets as magical, portraying the miracles as mysterious tricks.

Like Picasso and his bulls, Johnston repeated in countless drawings familiar symbols representing important aspects of his psyche. The floating eye comes from the Beatles lyrics “I am the Walrus” (“Yellow matter custard, green slop pie, All mixed with a dead dog’s eye”), as well as an unimaginable incident in which Johnston witnessed a dog hanging from a swing. The eyes have become substitutes for innocence and fear. The reference to the “dead dog’s eyeball” symbol appeared as the title of a 1990 album in which Kathy McCarty richly reinterprets Johnston’s music.

Packed to the brim, some of the artist’s designs are teeming with motorcyclists, superheroes and skateboarders, moving in all directions and showing telltale signs of horror emptiness, while others allow characters with Brilliant colors jumping forcefully from a clean white page.

Daniel Johnson
Daniel Johnston, “Speeding Motorcycle”, 1977. Pen and colored marker on paper. 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Artwork © Daniel Johnston. Courtesy of the Daniel Johnston Trust. Image courtesy of the Daniel Johnston Trust.
Daniel Johnson
Daniel Johnston, “Belief Makes Me Strong”, c. 2000. Pen and colored marker on card stock. 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Artwork © Daniel Johnston. Courtesy of the Daniel Johnston Trust. Image courtesy of the Daniel Johnston Trust.

Johnston’s art could be classified as naïve in that he is mostly self-taught, and his colorful cartoon style could be considered childish, though his images are straightforward without sacrificing detail. While naive artists are presumably educated and possess an (albeit sometimes exaggerated) awareness of their position as artists, they can be obsessive in their approach to creating art, driving them to be exceptionally prolific. Another classification of Johnston’s style could be visionary, as much of his work transcends the visible world, illustrating his own spiritual struggles.

In addition to the demands of his intense faith, Johnston suffered from extreme bouts of depression. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in early adulthood and repeatedly entered mental institutions. Some research suggests that compared to the general population, artists have a disproportionate rate of manic-depressive or depressive illnesses. But adhering to the “tortured artist” myth is problematic, especially when someone’s tragic circumstances contribute to fame, or when the stress of fame exacerbates a medical condition.

The Contemporary rightly addresses the seriousness of Johnston’s illness in QR code text attesting to an event in which the artist was hospitalized after experiencing delusions, and exhibition text stating:

“With the distinctive imaginative and confessional style of his work, as well as his experimental, artisanal approach to recording, Johnston’s sanity contributed to the popular image of him as a ‘pure, childlike artist’ or ” tortured.’ genius.’ This exhibition complicates this portrait through an interdisciplinary presentation of his work that shows the coherence of his vision as well as the lifetime of work he devoted to the development and presentation of his art and music.

Daniel Johnson
A still from the 2005 documentary ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’. Photography: Jeff Feuerzeig/Sony Classic

The exhibit features old photos, a wall installation using elements from Johnston’s bedroom, and recordings and videos of his music. On the program, a screening of the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2005) to deepen the understanding of the artist’s work.

But the seemingly futile effort to separate Johnston’s works from his biography makes examining the exhibit tricky. The artist’s enthusiastic fan base and cult status can be daunting. And as a native Austinite who grew up a few blocks from the Drag and frequented the McDonald’s where Johnston distributed his tapes, the period, the scene and its regulars, including the known homeless and those with illness mental, are familiar to me and instilled in me a bias yet to be defined when I approached this show.

The Contemporary does not promise to tackle problematic narratives related to creativity and mental illness and it need not. When I went on opening weekend, the exhibit was remarkably crowded even with COVID-19 protocols requiring reservations. The show’s popularity and happy audience – though a bit less than the story of the hanged dog – still leaves me disgusted.

But if there is a conflict, get back to work.

Johnston is widely collected, has been recognized in galleries around the world, and was included in the Whitney Biennial (2006). His images show a strong aptitude for color and unbridled energy. They give us a glimpse into a living visual world and an artist’s life that, although uncomfortable, deserves to be celebrated.

“Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams” is on view through March 20, 2022 at the Contemporary Austin Jones Center, 700 Congress Ave.