Fans of Daniel Johnston are already versed in the late artist’s verses — though the countless collages with his sister Marjory in the last years of his life may come as a surprise. In Daniel & Marjory Johnston: The What of Whom at Lydia Street Gallery in Austin, scores of the siblings’ works on paper are presented along with a selection of Johnston’s early drawings, offering a fresh perspective on his protean arc. “There were different sides of being his sister,” said Marjory at the show’s opening in late January. “Some of it was so happy and joyful and fun […] and other times it was heartbreaking.”
Marjory says that Daniel — the youngest of the five siblings — knew from an early age he would be famous one day. The Johnstons doted on their baby brother, which made it even more difficult when he began showing signs of serious mental illness in his early 20s while making music and art in Austin. Marjory was particularly close to Daniel — who was 10 years her junior — later on in life, while living in Waller, Texas. Once their parents passed, she became her brother’s caretaker, helping to manage his health, his house, and the copious collections of records, comics, and toys that filled it.
It was Johnston’s penchant for thrift store items that actually led to their collaborations. In an effort to declutter her brother’s home, Marjory began tearing off all the covers of McCalls and Butterick sewing patterns Daniel had acquired (“he liked the pictures on the front of ladies in different poses”), placing the images in his notebooks and discarding the rest. A half-torn photo of a female model became their first collage after Daniel decided to draw in the remaining bits himself. “He turned these female legs into this creature like only he can,” his sister recalled during her gallery talk. Daniel insisted they continue with the project until it was no longer fun. It went on for six years, until his passing in 2019, at the age of 58.
The show at Lydia Street Gallery features nearly 100 works — a small sampling from Marjory’s own collection, but a vast ocean of her brother’s imagination, from comic-book characters to biblical symbols to Beatles references. Media clippings take on mythical creatures of anthropomorphized acclaim. In one such collage, Jeremiah the Innocent Frog (of Hi, How Are You fame) struts in stilettos as a skinny-jean centaur. In another, a hybridized heroine — half McCall model, half Marvel muse — swims in a sea of lyrics from Johnston’s song “Scrambled Eggs” off his 1982 self-released album The What of Whom.
A series of collages containing songs from that titular album — including the two just mentioned — are on display. It was Marjory who thought to start pairing collages with songs that most suited the mood of each drawing, bringing together Daniel’s kinetic, thematic oeuvre of words and visuals. Like everywhere else in his work, recurrent characters — often heroic or villainous in nature — cohere the tidbits of cultural references and symbolic messages that swirl on these sheets of paper, much like the lyrics themselves.
Johnston was something of a cartographer, mapping out the topographies of his own mind. Standing in the gallery, one can’t help but appreciate the colorful coordinates that made up the map. His early ink drawings, for instance, feature symbols and themes that turned prolific in his body of work. One in particular catches my eye, a reference to his iconic Fly Eye — a winged eyeball seen on his 1985 album cover Continued Story. The eye rests on the head of a scantily-clad woman, with the words “No Brain No Pain” written in blue marker. (On the back of this drawing, and others like it from the early 1980s, a random clerical form doubles as art.)
The collages with Marjory make up most of the show: bright, busy, funny, yet melancholy. A poignant mashup of pop culture and personal revelations, both chaotic and poetic. “Vengeance Is Mine Says the Lord,” reads one from 2015, which includes a photo of John Lennon’s head, to which Johnston has added a golden halo with the words “The Pope Smokes Dope Every Day,”
Every drawing lends itself to the harmony-cacophony that happily vibrates in the space. Most are 8 1/2 x 11 inches, matted and framed in black; an archival uniformity densely arranged on the walls to emphasize Johnston’s rapid-fire production. The collages brimming with Daniel’s lyrics, paired together by Marjory, and his early works that she’s held onto, which hang in the window like sun catchers, for both sides to be seen, speak to the tenderness of their relationship. All while his songs — 15 hours’ worth — play in the background, adding to the surround-sound of a continued story: the what of whom that’s never really gone.
Daniel & Marjory Johnston: The What of Whom runs through March 19 at Lydia Street Gallery in Austin.