By Michael Wilson
In choosing The Name of the Rose as the title of his 1980 best-selling medieval thriller, Italian author and semiotician Umberto Eco confronted readers with an image charged with so many symbolic readings as to have effectively hollowed out, set adrift on a sea of equivalent possibilities. And with the book’s last line, Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus, which translates as “Yesterday’s rose endures in its name, we hold empty names,” he suggests that from beauty of the past, now vanished, only a linguistic trace remains. The emphasis on the free play of sign and signifier that title and kicker imply is mirrored in the characteristically postmodern license that Eco takes with structure, plot, and theme throughout the novel. Setting his story in a time and place hidebound by complex rules of interpretation, he manages nonetheless to involve the reader in a fluid production of meaning.
Butt Johnson (the cheeky pseudonym belongs–may I give the game away?–to dealer Rob Hult) borrowed the name of The Name for his New York solo debut, for reasons both literal and metaphorical. Several actual drawings of roses were on display, as were renderings of other subjects, many of which involve a layering of reference that points to an artist after Eco’s own heart. Working almost exclusively in down-home ballpoint pen (one work is a drypoint print), Johnson picks out images with a minute precision that, in conjunction with an antique style that recalls illustrated manuscripts and old-master engravings, lends them the authority of historical artifacts. The designs of some have a heraldic feel; others suggest dusty leaves excised from obscure encyclopedias or atlases. But while the works’ aesthetic is grounded in antiquity, its breadth of subject matter reveals a thoroughly contemporary sensibility, ranging across some familiar technological and pop-cultural territory.
Of this broad ground, the hinterland of personal computing is the most thoroughly surveyed here. Various Controllers, Maps, and a Robotic Accessory, 2007, pictures an collection of joysticks and other gaming tools, arrayed and indexed like biological specimens, while Urbs Aeterna, 2009, reproduces the once-ubiquitous Windows 3D Pipes screen saver with the kind of reverence more often accorded a classical frieze. In larger works, such allusions are generally juxtaposed with a number of others: The Ambassadors, 2008, for example, nods to the arcade game Street Fighter II, the strategic board game Risk, a nineteenth-century map of the British Imperial Federation by J.C.R. Colomb, and the eponymous Hans Holbein double portrait (an anamorphic version of the Grateful Dead logo displacing the original’s similarly distorted skull). The result is a breathless tumble through the history of international conflict and expansionist fervor, but one that boasts a curious–albeit geeky–charm.
Arguably the centerpiece of the show was Starchitects, 2009-2010, Johnson’s epic study for the Tower of Babel. Derived from an image in the computer game Civilization III (what, incidentally, are we to make of the fact that even civilization itself can apparently spawn sequels?), this maniacally detailed drawing transforms the super building into a composite history of architecture. Recasting the apocryphal original as a faux-biblical cutaway with a minuscule cast of thousands, the artist summons countless ghosts, not least among them that of children’s-book illustrator Richard Scarry, lord of generic metropolis Busytown. Extreme detail can be a distraction, a graphic special effect that masks a paucity of ideas, but in Johnson’s hands it facilitates a lively intermingling of cultural and scientific histories that might not, by any other name, smell as sweet.