They may be selling Daniel Johnston t-shirts across the bridge in Baltic’s bookshop, but this first UK retrospective of the cult savant singer/songwriter is more at home in alt. gallery’s bijou back-room space in one of the most out-there record emporiums anywhere.
Seeing the faded customised cover of Johnston’s very first home-recorded cassette, Songs Of Pain, even out of arm’s reach beneath glass, it’s clear how his musical exorcisms of his inner demons pre-dated and even predicted what’s on offer. Row on row of hand-crafted, make-shift artefacts are wrapped around an overload of primal squalls and screeches contained within the DIY and undoubtedly dysfunctional recordings, would be the sort of thing Johnston would be doing today if he hadn’t discovered The Beatles first.
As for the drawings, this small selection from 1981 to 2006 and drawn from a far larger body of work are a rare peek into the mind of an individual who can’t help but express everything he feels in raw, candid colour.
The figures who look set to burst out of their frames are obsessively familiar, featuring an array of muscle-bound super-heroes in (im)mortal combat with goofy bug-eyed monsters which could have come free with breakfast cereal. Other escapees of pop cultural machismo—boxers, Kung Fu fighters et al—busy up over-loaded images that are equal parts hope and despair. The symbolic, fantasy-wish-fulfilment links with Johnston’s ongoing mental state as outlined in Jeff Feuerzeig’s brilliant and often uncomfortable documentary feature film, The Devil And Daniel Johnston.
Yet, Johnston’s championing by bands such as Sonic Youth and The Pastels, as well as his substantial earnings from shows at the Whitney Biennial and other art-houses, have helped make all his dreams of stardom come true enough to soften his no less manic tendancies. So, the early flourish of Daniel Johnston’s signature, all artfully studied curlicures in 1981, has bu 2006 become the solid block capitals of plain old Daniel Johnston. Daniel or Dan, Johnston has no need to impress anyone anymore, let alone himself. Now he’s become a real life super hero of sorts.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic