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Daniel Johnston backstage in Boston 2009-10-15

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NYT - Stranger Town

March 9, 2005


Invading Genres Breach the Art World's Porous Borders



There's not much doubt that the art world is a lot more porous than it used to be, open to all kinds of visual and not-so-visual activity previously considered beyond its borders. But you really feel the wind blow through the cracks at "Stranger Town," a fiercely energetic exhibition of drawings, paintings, video, books, CD's, T-shirts and sculpture by eight artists at Dinter Fine Art, a new gallery in Chelsea.

The show has been organized by the young artist Taylor McKimens, who selected artists he felt should be better known in the art world than they were. Most of them already have thriving careers elsewhere - in fertile subcultures and commercial disciplines like Japanese manga, illustration and animation and skateboarding. The best-known figure, Daniel Johnston, is a longtime cult figure on the indie-music scene who achieved instant fame in that sphere when Kurt Cobain, an admirer, was photographed at the MTV Awards wearing one of his T-shirts.

One common thread here seems to be Mr. McKimens's ecumenical interests. His selections include one of his former teachers at the Art Center in Pasadena, Calif.; music faves; and discoveries made on a recent trip to Japan with his girlfriend, the artist Misaki Kawai. But the larger continuity is drawing, used to create teeming surfaces and large casts of characters - even entire worlds - or to range at will across a universe of styles.

The show offers further evidence of what seems to be true nearly everywhere else: drawing, even more than photography, is the universal language of the moment, because it is at once the most low-tech of art forms and yet completely adaptable to all other techs, from books and comics to digital animation. As it tours art's many overlapping fields, this show ricochets among works done for pleasure, for business, or both. Not all of it is great or original, but all of it, like Alice's rabbit hole, leads to something else that is.

One of the show's high points is the stunning wall devoted to drawings in charcoal, ink or pencil by the Japanese artist Tomoo Gokita. This polymath draftsman is best known for his thick, newsprint books, one of which, to give the art world a little credit, Mr. McKimens discovered in the bookstore of the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Mr. Gokita's vocabulary barrels across illustration, pornography, abstraction, children's drawing, calligraphy and sign-painting, with a perfect control, velvety surfaces and tonal range that makes black-and-white feel like living color.

Offering Mr. Gokita stiff competition for best in show is the work of Saiman Chow, who is renowned in the field of motion graphics animation. (A commercial for the N.F.L. is included.) Invited by Nike (along with 14 other designers and animators) to make a work for its "Art of Speed" DVD, Mr. Chow came up with "Oggo," a breathtaking video that goes inside the body of a runner to expose the high-speed shenanigans of the oggos, marshmallowlike adrenalin cells. On constantly mutating vehicles, the oggos race through a pearlescent landscape of running shoes in a slapstick narrative that evokes Japanese lacquer and Walt Disney while operating somewhere between "Mad Max" and Peter Max. Also included here are Mr. Chow's undulating collages, grafted together from magazine images of bodies (mostly female) and supplemented with paint and pencil. They would be at home in an emerging-artists group show.

The show includes two well-known exemplars of manga whose work is ubiquitous in Japan, as Mr. McKimens discovered on his recent trip. Both offer ample evidence that manga, like the underground comics in this country, often revels in society's darker, kinkier side. The cartoons of Mimiyo Tomozawa, who has designed album covers for American musicians like Jim O'Rourke, depict a world of chubby, not-so-innocent children, although they seem more benign in a vividly optical short animation, also on view. Yusaku Hanakuma details the adventures of the wildly popular characters Afro and Hage (meaning Bald Head), but also makes paintings and designs T-shirts. In one of his cartoons here, Hage goes fishing and discovers a dead, footless body on a pier; he remarks upon his luck, since he forgot to bring bait. Mr. Hanakuma is one of those artists whose cryptic, uninflected drawing style enables him to get away with a form of graphic murder.

The artistic team known as the Clayton Brothers (Rob, with whom Mr. McKimens studied, and Christian) are well-established illustrators who are turning increasingly to art. Their collaborative assemblage-installation, "Gold Friends League, Grooming Station No. 1," is part wall, part furniture and densely covered with drawn and painted faces that often merge humans and dogs, found objects and words of advice: "Reminder. Always Keep Your Training Voice On." The style is a little overheated as well as familiar, a blend of Barry McGee, Christian Schumann and Dieter Roth. The best parts are milk cartons tattooed with delicate pencil drawings and displayed on individual outcroppings.

Jason Holley, another professional illustrator and also a musician, cuts up his commercial work to make deft little biomorphic sculptures that merge grommeted-together construction paper with cactuslike aggregates of Sculpey. (They share their small scale, intense color and exquisiteness with the ceramic art of Kathy Butterly.) Similar contraptions populate the artist's delicate watercolors. But Mr. Holley's work may serve best as an introduction to the music of his three-man band, Ukefink. (That's ratfink, with a ukulele.) Using all manner of instruments, some of which sound quite cobbled together themselves, this chameleonlike trio moves effortlessly from Captain Beefheart to the Carter Family to Lou Reed.

Filling a small, makeshift corner behind Mr. Holley's display is the work of Rich Jacobs, an artist and independent curator who is especially popular in the skateboard world. Mr. Jacobs, who is organizing a group show that will open at the Clementine Gallery in Chelsea on March 17, favors found materials, including wallpaper, box tops and shopping bags, and employs abstract and representational modes with equal fervor. Basically he parlays both approaches into pulsing all-over patterns. Some may consist of goofily slack-jawed faces that recall Daumier; in others, looping thatches of abstract lines create a fizzy, molecular heat.

It's easy to overlook the small, colorful, expressionistic drawings of the singer, songwriter and piano wizard Daniel Johnston, a pillar of the indie music scene despite a long history of mental illness. Mr. Johnston, whose music is as personal, constant and rough-edged as Ukefink's is polished and changeable (in a good way), has made art since he was a child. He is the subject of a documentary, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, that was shown at Sundance this year.

On first sight these cartoonish works seem rather generic, something that only a devoted fan could appreciate. But in them Mr. Johnston translates his quavering, confessional music into wobbly figures that hint at El Greco, reflect his unfailingly intimate combination of sexual longing and childlike na�vet� and his indelible way with language. "Get Real Someday" one drawing advises. In another a woman asks a man: "Do you want me to tell you how to eat your hamburger? I'll be your love slave." The exhibition also includes a sampling of Mr. Johnston's T-shirts, whose images and words offer further evidence of the mutating creativity that courses through this show.


The show is at Dinter Fine Art, 547 West 27th Street, Chelsea, through March 26.