Of Satan, Captain America, and Daniel Johnston
This year’s Outsider Art Fair exalts the late musician’s visual art.
Daniel Johnston, Oh Lord Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (detail), 2002, ink and marker on paper.
When Daniel Johnston passed away in late 2019, his absence was felt not just by music fans, but also those in the visual arts. He had been garnering a following for his cartoon-like vibrant drawings—mostly made with markers and pencil on standard printer paper—since he began his music career in Austin, Texas in the 1980s. He was as prolific with his drawings as he was writing his haunting, unfeigned music, eventually taking part in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. This year, Johnston’s drawings are getting their own dedicated show at Electric Lady Studios, on view from January 28 through February 7, as part of the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. GARAGE reached out to Gary Panter, who curated the show and whose own work is similarly rooted in the comic book-superhero-aesthetic, to learn more about how Johnston’s work fits into the outsider art oeuvre.
So tell me about your relationship to Daniel Johnston and to his work. How did he become a part of your life?
I only know Daniel’s work through media. I have friends who worked with him—Kramer, Jad Fair, and others who had brushes with him or his work. It was hard to miss his work when it surfaced in rock magazines and LP covers. It is very energetic, compelling and colorful work with a strong psychic charge.
Did he ever influence your work?
No. I am older than Daniel. I admire his work as a drawer and colorist and storyteller. There are people like Darger, Susan King and Daniel whose work I see in media and feel a closeness to—that we were working on related issues as drawers and image experiencers. So I recognize them as some kind of comrades at a remove.
Was it a powerful experience to see all of this work grouped together?
I was trying to cover the repeating themes to show a kind of hieroglyphic aspect of his work.
So I wanted to get Captain America and Thor, Jesus, and Satan, the reoccurring ducks, nudes, and monsters all in and the ones with the nicest shapes on the page.
I would say that Daniel’s work is very confident, emphatic, colorful. Obsessive, loosely organized, pleasing, somewhat distressing. That it seems to try to clarity confusions but maybe only produces psychic explosions. Like his music it combined innocent hopefulness and melancholy. At first glance one might not sense mental distress because the work was produced in an energetic manic mode.
It seems like you and Daniel had several experiences in common—especially as they relate to Christianity and acid trips. Does that make you feel a special connection to him?
We are both from the Church of Christ and subjected to the consequence of that. And both subjected ourselves to psychedelic drug experiences. Both of those things are pretty heavy. I am somewhat damaged from fundamentalist church in Texas and poison LSD, but I guess that adversity is a kind of gift, as artists seem to need a puzzle, or compelling problem, irritant, or emotional hunger of some kind to work with. Texas is a thing in itself, as an issue of a state of mind where there is great pressure to conform. Daniel had other issues that hurt and inspired him. I am happy to not do Darger, or King or Daniel Johnson’s, work. My insight into their work, if I have any, is from being a life long art-obsessed person who must make things. And from the temporary psychosis I experienced on difficult trips. The concepts, conundrums, vicious circles, rhetorical devices, and traditions pretzeling the assertions of the historians and institutionalists of primitive Christianity are enough to drive one crazy or at least get you out of Texas. As bad as bad acid. I do love Texas. It is a cauldron of primal forces.