September 5-November 10 2007
They may be selling Daniel Johnston t-shirts across the bridge in the book shop of Gateshead’s Baltic Centre, but, despite the tendency of this vast multi-story space to resemble the domed city in ‘Logan’s Run’, this first UK retrospective of the cult savant singer/songwriter would probably boil over with excitement in alt. gallery’s bijou back-room space in one of the most out-there record emporiums anywhere.
Because seeing the faded customised cover for 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 on the other side of the room. The row on row of hand-crafted, make-shift artefacts wrapped around the overload of primal squalls, screams and screeches contained within the uber-limited, lo-fi, DIY and undoubtedly dysfunctional recordings released on whatever primitive outlet that’s going would be the sort of thing Johnston would be doing today if he hadn’t discovered The Beatles first.
As for the drawings, seeing what is actually just the small part of a collection that moves from 1981 to 2006 is 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 t burst out of the frames are obsessively familiar, recurringly 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, so cartoonishly retro are they. 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’, as well as an exhibition shared with Map cartoonist Malcy Duff at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in 2006, aren’t difficult to bridge.
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 august art-houses, have helped make all his dreams of stardom come true enough to soften his still no less manic tendencies. Which is why, beyond the pen and ink iconography on offer here, the early flourish of Johnston’s signature as ‘Daniel Johnston,’ all artfully studied curlicues in 1981, has by 2006 become the solid block capitals of plain old ‘Dan Johnston. Whether Daniel or Dan, Johnston has no need to impress anyone anymore, let alone himself now he too has become a survivor, and a real-life super-hero of sorts.
MAP magazine, October 2007