city Arts new york’s review of culture

Gallery Beat
February 8th, 2011
Butt Johnson: The Name of the Rose

Nicholas Wells

The rose has been so overused as an allegorical symbol that the flower is devoid of power and importance. Or so argues Butt Johnson in his first solo show at CRG Gallery, The Name of the Rose. It’s an interesting argument, but little of the work follows through on the promise of reconceputalizing a symbology for dead metaphors.

Johnson’s drawings could be created by whoever designs bank notes, they are so detailed and masterfully crafted. Taking a cue from Old Master engravers and printmakers, he builds his drawings from delicate ballpoint pen lines shadowing their subjects before patterned backgrounds. Contrasting technique with subject, the drawings often depict cultural icons from the past 20 years. “Omnia mutantur, nihil interit” shows the progression of the ball screensaver that you might remember from Windows ≠97.

Some of his references are classical, though thoroughly filtered through the pop-cultural lens of a child of the 1980s. In “The Ambassadors,” a large map of the world, modeled on J.C.R. Columb’s 1886 drawing of the British Imperial Federation, is flanked by characters from Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II, with the four-armed Goro taking the place of Britannia, surveying his subjects. The composition, tightly framed by the edge of the paper, shows his debt to Old Masters like Dürer and Bruegel.

The Name of the Rose traces a history of recent idleness. We have images from video games and computer culture, often symbols of wasted youth and the degradation of society, but Johnson is so steeped in these cultures that they appear almost without irony. Johnson’s work promises fresh direction as a new generation confronts our history through its own media and video games which are gaining prominence as legitimate forms of expression.