You really have to be in the mood when getting in touch with Daniel Johnston for the first time. I was not. It was 4-5 years ago when I watched this documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and couldn’t understand why everybody considered him a genius, and highly influential on many artists and musicians. It’s taken me long time to realize what is a fact, and Johnston’s universe is definitely worth investigating.
Few days ago I heard of an exhibition of his drawings in Barcelona, and since I’m currently having plenty of time, scheduled my visit early this week, one morning I didn’t have much to do. Timing was perfect, I had just received bad news and was in low mood, so I really needed something to divert my attention and escape, and this hyper creative universe was perfect to do so.
Symbolical Visions is a compilation of letters, posters, flyers, magazine covers, illustrations with ball pens and markers, which gets us closer to his so called art brute. As Daniel defines himself
I’m a baby in my universe.
In his universe the sense of two opposite visions is clearly marked: good and evil, black and white, there’s no place for grey. Superheroes, creatures of experience, the frog of innocence, good monsters, evil creatures, women and creatures of redemption are in essence the inhabitants in his head.
There are recurrent characters, Joe the Boxer, the eternal fighter against evil, Jeremiah the Frog, Captain America, the hero he’d love to be, Casper the friendly Ghost, Frankenstein, the Duck, Sassy Fras the Cat, the Vile Corrupt, Laurie, his all time crush, and the Devil.
Listen up and I’ll tell a story about an artist growing old. Some would try for fame and glory others aren’t so bold
According to the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, at early age he wasn’t an average kid, showing an inborn talent, way over those next to him. He used to play piano, record short films, write songs telling stories… It was music which made the difference, but we could say he is the example of the Do-It-Yourself philosophy, starting self promoting, drawing cool posters for events. It’s a fact the effort was worth it, and he succeeded.
In the exhibition there is an area of tape players, with four of his works: Hi, How are you? (1983), Songs of Pain (1981), Continued Story (1985), Retired Boxer (1984).
In the digital era, listening to rough tapes, with no mixing at the first take, it’s a difficult experience, especially when Johnston is not the average artist featuring a neat way of playing any instrument, nor a powerful and beautiful voice. It’s the content and the message what really matters and is valuable, not the receptacle. Once you assume this, you realize the awesomeness of Johnston. I reckon.
Jeff Tartakov, probably the hugest collector of Johnston’s and his former long term manager, was also the consignee of many letters and drawings during the artist’s recurrent stays at mental hospitals due to breakdowns and crisis caused by schizophrenia and substance abuse.
Johnston’s mental condition got worse together with his increasing popularity. Smoking pot and his experiences with LSD made him lost his mind completely. Religion was present in his life, but there was a turning point, enhanced by drugs and insanity, in which it became an obsession. Dressed in white, he used to burst into tears during his performances and talk about how he had lost his soul to the Devil. He was self-portrayed as in constant struggle, trying to get away from some situation or place.
His unique personality is complex, obsessive and twisted. His art would be a kind of trench against the real world, and his need to free his demons so badly, would result into this art brute I was mentioning before. Plain and simple, full of chaotic messages and concepts.
Great point the fact that I visited the exhibition at a weird time so the security guard was busy speaking on the phone, the staff was arranging some other event to be celebrated, and the two rooms were deserted. Photos were forbidden, and I took at least 15…
If you’re in Barcelona, this exhibition will be available till mid November. In case you’re not, I recommend you check Johnston’s art, music and the documentary to understand his circumstances better. It’s weird, chaotic, and sometimes even ridiculous, yet rich and intense.