On ViewThe Contemporary Austin
September 11, 2021 – March 20, 2022
“Daniel Johnston Is Alive Somewhere” reads the first illustration at the entrance of I Live My Broken Dreams. The framed sheet of paper, with its six colorful frogs, is a busier version of Johnston’s globally recognized “Hi, How Are You” image of a wide-eyed amphibian known as Jeremiah the Innocent. A local hero and cult icon of the “outsider” school, Johnston is currently being celebrated with a survey show at The Contemporary Austin. Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams opened September 11, two years to the day of his passing. The prolific, enigmatic singer-songwriter and artist, famed for his self-released music cassettes and comic-book drawings, would have turned 60 this year.
Once upon a time, Johnston stepped off a bus and into the indie alchemy of early ’80s Austin, working at McDonald’s while inducting himself into the city’s underground music and media arts scene. Back then, Austin was a sociocultural petri dish of undergrads and misfits in existential opposition to the Republic of Texas. A college town gussied up as a state capital, the city attracted young people who could live on the cheap and afford to dream big. Johnston was one of those dreamers. The film Slacker came out of the era, as did a punk music scene which, in turn, influenced Seattle grunge: Kurt Cobain sported a “Hi, How Are You” t-shirt at the 1992 MTV Music Video Awards. By then, Johnston was long gone from Austin, and in some ways, Austin was on its way out, too. The Contemporary’s survey show is an archival deep-dive into both the artist's life and work, and the history of a bygone city barely recognizable today.
I Live My Broken Dreams is a conceptual cassette player of an artist recording the now obsolete, in real time. “People paint Daniel as very naive, when he was very intentional,” the show’s co-curator Robin K. Williams tells me. “He had this childlike innocence, but he was also true to his inner vision.” The survey is comprised of more than 200 of Johnston’s artworks, personal notes and pictures, ephemera encased under glass, and audio and video footage—even Johnston’s well-worn piano from his home studio. A wall-sized photograph of his famed “Hi, How Are You” mural from 1993, which still exists today, oversees the gallery space, next to a display case containing an original cassette tape, handmade and home recorded by Johnston in 1983, on which that image first appeared.
“Jeremiah is Daniel’s most recognizable character, but he has a whole universe,” says Williams, pointing to a framed loose-leaf sheet filled with symbolic images central to Johnston’s mythologies: “Here is the original pen-on-notebook drawing that was published in Spin Magazine in 1989. Jeff Tartakov [Johnston’s former manager] calls this the Rosetta Stone—it’s almost a decoding.” The blue ballpoint pen illustration is a treasure trove of characters: Johnston’s Frog of Innocence, symbols of childhood and hope, a 666-emblazoned Satan and an alter ego of Jeremiah named Vile Corrupt. Dualistic battles between good and evil, in the world and in himself, play out in much of the work.
Johnston was raised in West Virginia, the youngest of five siblings, in a devout Christian family. He took piano lessons as a child and began emulating comic book heroes early on in his own drawings (some which can be seen in this show). Though best known for his music—Johnston released over 20 albums—The Contemporary has gone out of its way to showcase his surfeit of visual art. Grids of ink drawings cover the gallery walls, loosely broken up into different phases of his career. Captain America looms large throughout, as does Casper the Friendly Ghost. Cultural touchstones, including Beatles lyrics and verses from his own music, are thrown in along the way. Vile Corrupt and an “everyman” boxer with his skull shorn off repeatedly get in the ring. In one such postmodern mashup, Johnston alludes to his song “Broken Dreams,” as well as Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” while an incarnation of Jeremiah the Innocent pleads with a four-headed beast. “And In The End The Love You Make May End Up In A Careless Rummage Sale,” runs across the bottom of the illustration.
Johnston left Austin in 1987 and returned to West Virginia, after experiencing a psychiatric episode which required treatment and brief hospitalization. (He struggled with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia for much of his life.) In 1991, his family moved to Waller, Texas, where he lived and continued to work until his death in 2019. I Live My Broken Dreams references a song he performed during an episode of MTV’s The Cutting Edge, recorded live in Austin in 1985. The Contemporary’s most poignant moment has nothing to do with his music or art; rather, it is a self-recorded video of Johnston, standing in a mirror on Thanksgiving in 1986. A message to his former self and former city: “I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston. Many years ago, I lived in Austin, TX…”