The Ghost of Daniel Johnston

Posted on May 18, 2009 – 6:52 PM | by phild
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by Tim Foster

Is Daniel Johnston the world’s greatest living artist?  The answer, according to Jeff Feuerzeig, director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, an acclaimed documentary about the artist, is “yes.” 

A fanatical, ever-expanding following for Johnston’s music and art adds fuel to Feuerzeig’s claim, as daniel johnstondoes the artist’s selection to represent the United States at the 2006 Whitney Bienalle. Johnston, who has had dozens of international shows in the past few years, has just seen the release of his first monograph, Daniel Johnston, from Rizzoli publishing.  Still, others remain unconvinced.  A recent Vice magazine review of the Rizzoli book dismisses the artist as “the most exploited idiot-savant in history.”   Which is it?

Daniel Dale Johnston (born, Sacramento, January 22, 1961) is a cult hero who has spun his incredible personal story into legend with a critically acclaimed series of albums, live performances and thousands of drawings and paintings.  Diagnosed in his twenties with Bipolar disorder, Johnston’s life has seen highs and lows which can only be described as epic. An improbable MTV star, his music has been covered by hundreds of artists, including Tom Waits and Sonic Youth; institutionalized, he was the focus of a record label bidding war; he performed an exorcism; perhaps most astonishing of all, he crashed a plane, wresting control from the pilot in mid-flight, and lived to tell about it.  Throughout all he has never stopped drawing and painting, and has produced a remarkably consistent body of work that has galvanized both fans and skeptics.  Museum of Love, a retrospective of Johnston’s work that opens at the Verge Gallery and Studio Project on May 7 will give viewers a chance to judge for themselves.

daniel artThe artist himself seems unconcerned with the reckoning of his position in the art world.  While discussing the art selected for the Rizzoli book, Johnston claimed that his inspirations for making art haven’t changed significantly since junior high.  “Not at all.  I still like war movies, I still read comic books.”   Johnston’s attitude comes as no surprise – his decades-long battle with mental illness has rendered him somewhat remote from the world at large. Johnston, who currently lives with his parents in rural Waller, Texas, exists instead in a world that is similar to, but clearly not identical to our own.

It was not always this way.

An exceptionally bright child, Johnston displayed a gift for drawing before he had reached his teens and identified art as his chosen career early on. The young artist worked feverishly, creating drawings, paintings, recordings and short films, gaining local notoriety for his talents all while utterly confounding his Christian fundamentalist family. Johnston inflamed the situation, intentionally provoking his parents in order to record their reactions, then using the recordings in his work.  A stint in art school at Kent State from 1980-82, ended with Johnston leaving without completing his degree, but not before meeting Laurie Allen, a classmate who would unwittingly serve as his muse for decades.  Allen became one of the repeating cast of characters that populate both Johnston’s music and artwork.

daniel artThose characters, including Laurie (the embodiment of love), the stalk-eyed Frog of Innocence, and Joe the Boxer (a man with the top of his head missing, usually assumed to represent Johnston) appear frequently in the work in the Verge show.   Often rendered in felt tip marker or ballpoint pen on found paper, the images are fragile and immediate, strongly influenced by the drawings of John Lennon and the comic book imagery of Jack Kirby. Johnston’s original characters sometimes share the stage with iconic figures co-opted from pop culture; Captain America, Casper the Ghost, and Frankenstein’s monster have assumed new lives in Johnston’s work.

The same figures are often interwoven into Johnston’s songs.  Johnston’s music, like his art, is rough-hewn but powerfully sincere.  Heavily inspired by the Beatles, Johnston writes melodic songs that chronicle loneliness, religion, love and joy.  Songs like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances” and “Speeding Motorcycle” (about Johnston’s beloved moped) have entered the American Songbook, celebrated by fans as diverse as David Bowie, Beck, and Kurt Cobain, who listed Johnston as one of his favorite songwriters.

Though often categorized with Outsider artists such as Henry Darger, the label does not fit, insists Jeff Tartakov, Johnston’s former manager and one of his earliest champions, and the collector who provided the work on display in Museum of Love.  “I don’t consider him an outsider artist at all – neither as a musician nor as a visual artist.  From our earliest conversations it was obvious that he knew quite a bit about both music and art history.  He knows exactly what he’s doing and always has.”

Director Feuerzeig also defends the sophistication of Johnston’s art, dismissing critics who claim that interest in Johnston is merely voyeuristic.  “Taken altogether- the music, the movies, the drawings- there’s no one who comes close to that level of creativity,” he says. Feuerzeig likens the artist to Vincent Van Gogh, another artist with a famously troubled mental history.  “If Van Gogh had also recorded Bob Dylan’s first five albums,” he adds.

daniel artUnlike Darger and other Outsider artists, Johnston is aware that he is working in the context of a larger art world – even if he is not always able to keep the details of the relationship precise.  Asked what artists he had discovered in art school, Johnston mentioned pop artist Jim Dine and referenced Trans-Fixed, a seminal work by performance artist Chris Burden, conflating the work of the two artists.  Continuing to talk about his Kent State experience, Johnston said “what I really learned in art school was to take my music seriously.”  During this period he first began thinking of his output as albums rather than just tapes of songs, and he pressed his homemade cassettes on anyone who would listen.  Each was titled Songs of Pain.

If disconnected from the humdrum realities of modern life, Johnston is obsessively plugged into contemporary culture via comic books, music and television. Johnston creates constantly, writing and recording music, drawing, and painting, tirelessly documenting the exploration of his own universe. Given to ideas as unlikely as the Beatles reforming to become his backing band, Johnston is unhindered by the limits of the ‘real,’ and is instead hampered only by the limits of his imagination.  In work that ranges from the joyous to the unsettling, Johnston uses his highly developed personal iconography to translate the unique experience of his own existence into the epic he clearly perceives it to be.

Museum of Love, the Art of Daniel Johnston opens at the Verge Gallery and Studio Project, 1900 V St, Sacramento, on Thursday, May 7.  Jeff Feurezeig will speak about Daniel Johnston at a screening of his film The Devil and Daniel Johnston at 7PM, Thursday May 14.

For more info about Daniel Johnston please visit the artist’s website:

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