Head Trip

In Daniel Johnston’s art, it’s all about the head. Big heads, hollowed-out heads, tiny heads, duck and cat and mouse heads, severed heads, devil heads, heads with one eye and heads with many eyes waving on tentacles. No matter how many characters and twisted setting pieces fill one of his works, its focus is noggins.

Johnston–singer-songwriter and artist– has been called a cult hero ever since Kurt Cobain wore one of his t-shirts to the 1992 MTV Music Awards. Only the hero part is true.  Johnston is now larger than life, with a prize -winning documentary in his past and an iPhone game in the present. His music has been covered by a host of indie stars and heard in the soundtrack to Where the Wild Things Are, his art shown at the 2006 Whitney Biennial and he survived a plane crash that he himself caused. Rizzoli has published a big, colorful collection of his more recent colored marker work with some notebook drawings (on lined paper) thrown in for good measure. It wouldn’t be fair to say he’s arrived–Johnston’s still under the radar for most–but he does keep going and going.

As the 2005 film The Devil and Daniel Johnston makes (somewhat) clear, the source of Johnston’s art are as varied as the seasons. He’s more than a simple eclectic and not simply an innocent although innocence gives his work a certain attraction. Johnston’s story suggests the relationship of madness to creativity, explores nature and nurture questions and, in a sort of holy backlash, highlights the perversions of evangelical thinking towards purity and punishment. Despite his psychological difficulties, Johnston has a unique type of ambition. A broken heart is central to his art.

As one of the curators of the 2006 Whitney show, Philippe Vergne suggests in the book’s lead essay, the acceptance of Johnston’s comic-inspired art work is a reaction to art’s current sterility. Vergne both condemns and champions the avant-garde in his essay, saying it has “drunk itself away…by over-indulging in its own industrialization, pampering itself to death…” and citing its “incredible and uncanny driving force…[a] prerequisite to oppose conventional wisdom, a capacity to alter its own status and institutions.” As more than one of Johnston’s characters says, “Who cares?”

Vergne does provide context for Johnston’s style by looking at the role of the cultural misfit and primitive in resisting and advancing the state of art. Johnston’s work is certainly primitive, with a child-like focus on monsters, heroes and battles. His drawings show little respect for traditional composition and perspective, yet they seem naturally composed. That winged horse riding its two wheels on the rim of a hollowed-out head with a dragonfly and a bare-chested woman hanging in stars nearby has an impact, not all of it symbolic, that extends from the head’s up-turned eyes. Because of those eyes you almost miss the fact that hollow-head is wearing a peace symbol necklace.

Looking for influence here is like looking for love. In a discussion with Johnston interspersed throughout the volume,  the artist claims admiration for Picasso, Dali and Jack Kirby. But what really moved him, he says, was a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe. “It was the first girl I ever seen naked and I was like, ‘This is awesome.'” Nudity aside, I thought of the comic art of  Gary Panter. But the more one pursues the comparison, the less apt it seems.

In his essay, Harvey Pekar warns us not to make too much of Daniel’s mental illness, described as both “bipolar” and “manic depressive” by the non-professionals writing in this book (there’s also indication that, thanks to medication, he has it under control). Based on his own experience with mental health, Pekar tells us that “Daniel Johnston isn’t great because he has bipolar disorder. He’s great despite it.”  In something of a contradiction, he later states, “I wonder if part of what Daniel is doing is trying to purge himself of the terrible things going on in his head.”

It’s obvious that Johnston’s drawings, like his lyrics, are clues into his mind. His frequent use of text reveals the unresolved nature of his thinking. Two strange busts, tucked into the corner of one drawing have an exchange: “Truth hurts,” says one. “It’s funny tho,” says the other. “Peace On Destroyed Planets” is the heading over one ominously-colored, three-clawed (and one shoe) cyclops. Promise often comes as contradiction in Johnston’s work. “Hope for the Hopeless/ Life Is over” is the title of one in which a woman in a bathing suit pulls a dripping skull from a stump. Sometimes the text suggests Johnston’s dilemma: “Questions with no answers are stupid in the 1st place stump the intellect and jam the machine” states one  bulging, green head even as a thought bubble escapes saying “who cares”.

But not all is gloom and frustration. The same drawing has a smiling, topless woman with stars for nipples saying “Hoorway For None Nowhere.” Even a duck striding over a pile of skulls looks joyful as he cries “Kill em all!” And don’t forget the figure on Cobain’s t-shirt, Jerimiah the stem-eyed Frog, and his famous greeting, “Hi, How Are You.”  Johnston’s art brings new meaning to talking heads.–Cabbage Rabbit

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