Art in the lands of milk and money

What visitors inhabit our created things? Adam Gopnik, author of the New Yorker article Shining Tree of Life decodes Shaker furniture. He has this to say about the "magically austere" Shaker objects, whose spare lines capture the object-as-object and in doing so, makes present an other worldliness:

[The Shakers] didn’t object to color and comfort, even as they rejected ornamentand luxury... Shaker design, while reaching toward an ideal of beauty, unconsciously rejects the human body as a primary source of form. To a degree that we hardly credit, everything in our built environment traditionally echoes our own shape: we have pediments for heads and claw and ball feet, and our objects proceed from trunklike bases to fragile tops. Repetition and the grid are two alternatives to design that refers to classical perspective space and the roundly realized human body. They reappear in twentieth-century art through the Cubist desire to make playthings that snubbed their noses at perspective, and the Teutonic urge to make a new language of pure form. Once you have got rid of the body as a natural referent for design, and no longer think “pictorially” about objects, grids and repeats begin to appear as alternative systems, whether you are in Japan, Montmartre, or Hancock. The love of asymmetry, which seems to us so sophisticated, involves a violation of the same taboo, since symmetry is the essence of human beauty. All Shaker design implies a liberation from “humanism” of this kind. When we make objects that look like us, we unconsciously are flattering ourselves. The Shakers made objects that look like objects, and that follow a non-human law of design.

This other worldliness is unfortunately closer to home in the art of Daniel Johnston, who suffers from bi-polar disease. I apologize if this sounds voyeuristic, but what I find interesting, given our growing understanding of how the mind processes information, is this near one-to-one connection between his state of mind and his drawings in the New York Times story "Man-Child in the Promised Land" (free registration required).

The story also points out the behavior of a couple of collectors who, the artist's parents say, have taken advantage of him. It adds an unsettling element, particularly now that Mr. Johnston has gained a following in the art world and his early work, much of which he simply gave away, has appreciated in value.

Mr. Johnston's art reflects this kind of visceral connection to his desires and his fears, some real and many only in his mind. The drawings, which some critics have compared to those of Raymond Pettibon, are heavily symbolic and feature his comic obsessions, like Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost, alongside his own creations, with names like the Frog of Innocence, the Man in the Polka Dot Underwear and a character usually meant to represent himself, a man with the top of his skull neatly excised, known as Joe the Boxer. Swastikas are a more disturbing motif, which Mr. Johnston attributes only to a fascination with World War II.

The article is accompanied by a multi-media presentation narrated by the writer.


Technorati tags: Daniel Johnston, Shakers, functional art, fine art, creativity