Daniel Johnston: Clementine Gallery
Schwendener, Martha, Artforum International
Daniel Johnston first emerged in the mid-1980s with a series of self-distributed lo-fi audiocassettes filled with songs that sounded like a cross between vintage blues, music made for children, and Bob Dylan as interpreted by Edith Bunker. He quickly became a celebrated figure in the indie-music world; Kurt Cobain once called him "the greatest living songwriter," and performers from Tom Waits to Wilco to Beck have covered his songs. Johnston was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the mid-'80s, an illness traced in the recent documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which compares him to similarly troubled musicians Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson.
Also outlined in the movie is Johnston's gradual emergence as a visual artist, a process that culminated in his inclusion in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. The sixty-eight mostly untitled marker and ballpoint-pen drawings from the '70s to the present included in Johnston's recent show at Clementine Gallery feature a cast of recurring characters that includes Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Joe the Boxer, and a sci-fi amphibian called Jeremiah the Frog. (In his youth, Johnston was a fan of Jack Kirby, the creator of comic heroes like Captain America, and often said his ambition was to be a cartoonist.) Other appearances are made by Johnston's dad, a WWII Flying Tiger; Laurie, a girl the artist met during a brief stint in college; and the Beatles.
But despite the literally manic cheerfulness of many of these drawings, they often also betray a dark undercurrent of religious terror that is imaged in numerous battles between good and evil fought by superheroes and humans, aliens and animals. With their idiosyncratic iconography and constant allusions to spiritual conflict, the drawings fit almost too neatly into that problematic and contested category, "outsider art," particularly as it has been defined since Henry Darger's work rose to prominence. …