Daniel Johnston is well-known in the outsider art community for his music, which he began producing in the late 1970s and continued until he passed away in 2019. His struggle with mental illness influenced his songwriting and a pure form of honesty rare to discover is conveyed through his creations. Along with a number of records, there is his collection of pen and marker drawings, often depicting battles of good versus evil and the demons that had haunted him since his childhood spent in a Christian fundamentalist household. These pieces of artwork listed below provide a fascinating look into a troubled mind with a vivid imagination.
Daniel Johnston’s My Nightmares, (1980): A dark subconscious
The delusions that clouded Johnston’s mind mixed with the deep depression he experienced led him to sometimes be debilitated by intrusive thoughts and dark images. His brain was active and self-sabotaging in the dream realm as well, enabling feelings of worthlessness in the waking world. In My Nightmares, a cyclops monster looms over a sleeping man and taunts him while a human figure with a head made out of a toy block holds a bloody knife. This figure in the back emerges from a window, showing that the evil swarming his mind infiltrated from the outside, and no blinds or glass exist to shut it out.
At the bottom of the page, he wrote the words they would kill me if I didn’t wake up in time, suggesting severe paranoia, characteristic of Schizophrenia. He lived in his own universe full of gods and monsters, none of which he designed for the purpose of integrating into his artwork. This is why many label him as an outsider artist. Johnston was simply expressing his pre-existing inner world that was torturous to live in. His already evocative imagination was perpetuated by visions not based on reality and twisted messages he had no control over, like the monster he depicted that roamed his subconscious.
The Eternal Battle (2006): The Question of Morality
Johnston’s most recognized drawing is on the cover of his ‘Hi, How are You’ music album released in 1983. He created a character called Jeremiah the Frog of Innosense, which appeared in many of his drawings. Alongside Jeremiah existed a lesser-known monster named Vile Corrupt, the evil alter-ego of the recognizable wholesome frog. This darker creature had many eyes, which Johnston proclaimed portrayed his theory that the more perspectives considered, the eviler the seer. It also always appears unnaturally muscular and physically strong while its angelic counterpart is small and childlike, looking helpless next to it.
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In The Eternal Battle, Jeremiah’s alternate self wears boxing gloves as he prepares to fight a man with a gaping hole in his head. Satan hovers over them and the words The Big Fight! and The Eternal Battle? frame the piece. Johnston’s life was defined by extremes, and he constantly lived in the tension of paradoxes. He was perpetually in inner turmoil, brooding over the power of good versus evil. The hole in the man’s head reveals the anticipation of combat. The mind hasn’t chosen which side will win for the time being until the never-ending cycle of fighting begins again.
The Rotten Truth (2008): A Balance of Light and Dark
Vile Corrupt makes an appearance in The Rotten Truth, which portrays a surprisingly complex side to the seemingly pure evil monster. The four-eyed creature stands in dismay, holding a dead boy missing the top of his head and shouting “Oh my god! What have I done?” One woman stands behind him dangling Jeremiah while the other poses in the background with a severed head. A light is shined through the darkness that resides in the frog’s alter ego which is overtaken by the superior evil of the green woman.
Johnston’s characters aren’t defined by black and white, although he suffered from an illness characterized by the extremes, he balanced on a tightrope in the gray as well. Someone who is labeled as purely wicked wouldn’t experience the shame and remorse that Vile Corrupt feels as he faces the reality of his vicious act of murder. In other drawings, Jeremiah lives inside the human mind. It could be interpreted that the balance of light and dark within Johnston was altered and the personified good-natured frog was killed at the time of this creation.
It’s You That Chilled the News (2007)
Although he gained fame for his unique musical talent, Johnston dreamed of becoming a comic artist. He was enamored with pop culture from a young age and loved to draw superheroes from Marvel comics. In It’s You that Chilled the News, seven eccentric and vibrantly colored characters along with five floating heads cover the page. The two significant figures are Captain America, who is shouting “Die Satan!” and Satan, who responds with “Death to you Captain America.” Different personas of the devil saturate many of his drawings. In this example, the devil resembles a genie materialized from the smoke with a bullet hole going through its skull and claw hands.
Johnston grew up in the Church of Christ, constantly bombarded with the ideologies of his faith and the instilled fear of eternal damnation. He began having spiritual visions after using LSD and marijuana, which aggravated the psychotic elements of his bipolar disorder. His artwork reflects this, with written references to subjects like heaven versus hell and drawings of demons.
Untitled, Torsos & Demons (1995): Sexual Repression
In addition to the abundance of demons appearing in his art, another common figure often drawn alongside the devil is the torso of a woman. As a self-proclaimed mentally unstable man, he found inspiration in the lack of love in his life and his desire for female courtship. Many of his works were created based on his intense feelings towards a woman named Laurie who he met in art class in his youth. Unrequited love was a recurring theme in his life. Another factor, besides his mental health, that influenced him was his religious background.
In Untitled, Torsos & Demons, three demons emerging from fire loom over the bodies of eleven women with severed heads and limbs. The torso in the forefront hovers over a stick of dynamite as the devil looks down upon it with pleasure. Embracing sexuality in Christian culture is abhorred and lust is perceived as a sin worthy of eternal damnation. His repressed feelings were channeled through his artwork, revealing his discernment against his ingrained beliefs and dissatisfaction with this moral barrier he faced.
Pain and Pleasure (2001): Embracing Fate
Wicked World is a song from Johnston’s first album Songs of Pain, released in 1981, that illustrates the meaning of this artwork perfectly. The melody he sings sound uplifting and hopeful, but the content becomes quite disturbing when you listen to the words. Johnston asks the question: if we’re all sentenced to an afterlife in hell anyway, why not live as if there are no consequences? A lyric that stands out is:
“We’re the world the wicked world
We do whatever we please
Forget your cares forget your
Sin is a wonderful disease.”
Pain and Pleasure could be interpreted as a visual portrait of the message he conveyed through the song lyrics. Two vibrantly colored ghoulish characters take the stage in this drawing. The one with features of a female body cries out, while the creature with male characteristics is chained up, submerged in a fire pit, and nonchalantly asks “Who cares?” This dialogue he wrote expresses his apathetic mentality and nihilistic thinking related to the inevitability of evil dragging humanity down with it. The inescapable fear that plagued him manifested itself in different emotions translated through his art. This drawing welcomes the dark side and gives in to its power.
Daniel Johnston’s Speeding Motorcycle (1984): Running from Death
The concept of the speeding motorcycle infiltrates Johnston’s music and visual artwork. In 1983, he released a song with that title and numerous drawings have been made depicting variations of this idea. The lyrics reveal the motorcycle to symbolize his heart, as it runs on pure emotion through life and quickly approaches the threat of death. It drives him towards the overwhelming force of love. However, as with all things in his life, it holds a dark representation simultaneously.
His perpetual flight from the grasp of death is physically manifested in this piece of artwork. The man riding the motorcycle shouts “Get away from my life” as two skulls float above, taunting him and promising a near-death. His lifetime battle with bipolar disorder caused him to constantly brood about death and the day when he would face the end. Looking through his collection of artworks, the inner turmoil that tortured him is clear. A constant battle ensued between accepting his twisted fate and fighting off the call of death he felt often.
Daniel Johnston was a deeply complex and creative individual who produced an incredible portfolio of artwork through music and drawing. His raw expressions of his inner world produced such a genuine and honest portrayal of humanity’s struggle between the light and dark that exists all around us. Although he sadly passed away in 2019, the impact of his creativity lives on.