by Matt Fox
“I would like to introduce you to the other world.”
That's one of the opening lines from the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. The “other world” is a fair descriptor of Johnston's unconventional and at times surreal approach to art, whether musical or visual. Johnston is a West Virginia singer-songwriter who rose to prominence in the 1980s. He was diagnosed with manic depression and schizophrenia, a twofold complication that later landed him in multiple mental wards and the custody of his parents.
Through these conditions, he continued writing music and creating art, influencing everyone from Kurt Cobain to Thurston Moore. His art may appear inaccessible at first, but it has a way of sticking with the viewer, ultimately showing its true form long after the initial intake.
If I said the drive to Lipscomb’s Hutcheson Gallery this past Friday didn’t consist of using the steering wheel as a makeshift drum for straight-eighths and belting out “I Live for Love” at the top of my lungs, I would be lying. Ever since I saw the documentary some six years ago, I've been following Johnston, his music and his visual art. When I caught wind of his work on display at Lipscomb, along with a subsequent symposium, I'm not sure my own wedding would've kept me away.
Upon entering, I found only two other individuals roaming the single-room exhibit of 112 works. This only heightened my schoolboy giddiness. I felt like Augustus Gloop in the Wonka Factory. Once the crowd began trickling in, I got a better idea of who I would be spending the next couple hours with.
To be sure, there were plenty of the highbrow, hipper-than-thou undergrads you'd expect, working hard to prove what big fans they were. Even so, I was surprised at the mix of people in the crowded exhibition space. Gallery-goers ranged from the elderly to average-looking families of four — an encouraging sign that people of all walks can appreciate Daniel Johnston’s work.
One piece featured a multitude of Johnston’s recurring characters packed together on a 10x14 piece of paper. Featuring the likes of Jeremiah, Casper, Daniel himself, and men with half-heads, the work is a demented collage, combining seemingly nonsensical phrases and thoughts into a unified body. Coated in highlighters and markers, each character is uniquely vibrant and manages to stand alone amidst the clutter and conceptual chaos. This work does a fantastic job of summarizing Johnston’s style, and serves as a window into his psyche.
Another favorite involves Johnston dealing directly with Beelzebub himself. As is typical in his works, images of demons always have rougher outlines, distorting their expressions and structure. In this instance, Satan appears to represent the powers that be continually trying to convince Johnston to stop his music and contribute to society.
Against phrases such as, “Stop the art,” and, “Feed the poor,” Johnston retorts with, “Death to sin,” sprawled across the bottom right corner in a piercing royal blue. The grotesque malformation of the devil against a backdrop of thematic conflict produces a truly affecting piece.
Many of the pieces directly relate to Johnston’s music — a drawing of The Beatles talking to Johnston while he plays piano, a piece which directly references “Danny Don’t Rap,” a song from his 1983 Yip/Jump Music. Others, however, were far more cryptic, alluding to a deeper and more personal side of the artist.
I began darting from piece to piece, trying to connect all these recurring characters and their roles in the grand scheme of Johnston’s thought processes. Why does Dead Dog’s Eye find itself on the Eiffel Tower in one picture, but shooting lasers in another? Why are the Day of the Dead skulls sometimes the drawings' protagonists, while three drawings away they're dueling with Captain America? I mulled over such questions with the investigative fervor of Sherlock Holmes, but the symposium was about to begin, so I reluctantly put down my proverbial pipe, removed my proverbial deerstalker, and sat down for the lecture.
After the speech subsided and people began to make their way to the snowy outdoors, I was left to return to the works with a completely different (and rather humbled) outlook. The logical framework I was trying to impose on the works was what would inevitably prevent their true meaning from showing. The goal of Johnston’s art may not be to render his inner workings in an accessible format, but to visually interpret the incoherent and inexpressible as-is. Instead of bringing rhyme and reason to the seemingly senseless, he leaves it in the rawest, least adulterated form possible. Johnston illustrated this best when he himself said, “That’s what I like about life and about art, is when you write a song it’s just the way you saw it or just the way it was. I think art is the greatest frame of mind to express a certain feeling, and you always have that feeling. It’s always there.”