Feb/Mar 2009

Daniel Johnston

Nicole Rudick


In a drawing of Texas in which the state is superimposed on a cross, Austin is designated by a pentagram sunk into a vortex. A dog’s head severed from a monstrous humanoid form inaccurately observes, “CROSS ON TEXAS,” and a trepanned human head with sunken eyes interjects, “DEATH TO SUICIDE.” Such is the landscape of Daniel Johnston’s drawings—cartoonish collisions of perspective whose Magic Marker palette extends from bright to brighter. But the more than eighty works that make up this monograph, the most comprehensive of his artwork to date, retain too much emotional presence to be mistaken for the doodles of an adolescent scribbler or a burned-out stoner. Johnston is a seminal figure in the indie-rock world, and his visual art mirrors the skewed clarity of his three-chord, lo-fi recordings, lonesome latter-day iterations of Harry Smith’s “old, weird America.” As an artist, his style and content draw on the same nerd psychedelia that feeds the work of Gary Panter, distilling the collective unconscious as constituted by Marvel Comics, Madison Avenue, and the seediest addresses of Hollywood. What results are compositions both alien and devastatingly recognizable. In a garishly colored scene, an impassive woman in red stripes demands of a guitar-strumming Johnston, “HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU.” The singer, eyes uplifted, answers in a drooping bubble, “NEVER.” At once gag cartoon and surrealist exercise, the picture leaves an unpronounced residue of sorrow, poignant and deeply, wonderfully weird.

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