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Escape Into Life

Art Reviews
January, 2011
BUTT JOHNSON – THE NAME OF THE ROSE

Meredith Rosenberg

Butt Johnson’s first solo show at CRG gallery, The Name of the Rose, references old master drawings and engravings, while the subject matter largely reflects on topical and contemporary issues and allegories. Using solely a ballpoint pen, Johnson created this body of work over a seven-year period, where he worked on each piece for about two years.

I read in the Rereveal interview with David Kennedy-Cutler that Butt Johnson’s name, not surprisingly a pseudonym, stemmed from an incident where the artist refused to state his real name to a panel of professors in art school. According to Johnson he had no idea this name would stick around for so long and he originally used it to achieve a more flexible identity as a student. To this day he has never again appeared publically as Butt Johnson, but continues to sign his artwork under this name 11 years later.

The exhibition could be by the artist or artists that design currency for the U.S. Treasury. One of the best strategies to confer fiat value is to make something look old, and to use outdated typefaces and Latin phrases is always a plus. I understand that “Butt Johnson” is a character the artist invented in art school and I suspect it is because he knew that his sort of art making would be reflexively denigrated by the entrenched, aging and hopelessly tenured Hans Hoffmanistas cabal of card carrying AARP members and push-pull loving, NY School-adoring oligarchs: to these, an artist like Butt Johnson is no more than a meticulously drawn fly in the Modernist dogma ointment.

You can’t help but notice the reference to obsession in Johnson’s work. In his interview David Kennedy-Cutler suggests that Johnson’s drawings convey not only a lot of labor but also various forms of obsessions such as engraving, video games, punk rock logos, monastic devotions, and repetitive mathematical symbols. Johnson takes issue with the idea that he uses these forms of the obsessive as a unifying principle. He associates the term with outsider art or art made in prisons, work that is made with such a singular purpose that the end products are almost arbitrary.  Johnsons says that while he finds the concept of outsider art interesting, his work is based on more specific ideas than just following a thread and seeing it unravel. Though Johnson loves subcultures and does have an interest in nerdy obsessions, he starts each piece with a defined intent of where he wants to go with an image. He goes on to say that he thinks of himself as giving a historical voice to some of these subcultures, but mostly he uses the subcultures to talk about something metaphorically or to hint at some larger schema like unrequited love (the S.E.T.I. project), narcissism (the graffiti drawing), or war (car bombs over Islamic geometric ornament).  Here, Johnson is using the visual aspects of sub-cultures and in an experimental way applying them to allegory.

As stated in the press release “Unrequited Love (2003-2005) uses the S.E.T.I. project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) as a metaphor for its titled subject and includes the S.E.T.I. screensaver (an early example of distributed computing), as well as [a Tulip crazed] traditional Dutch flower arrangement, interspersed with images of neurobiology and space exploration, hearkening to questions of solitude both personal and celestial.” Johnson renders this search for life in a slightly brittle version of Leonardo/Dürer-meets-Northern Renaissance precision and accompanies the image with notations in anachronistic script. Johnson’s conjectural apparatus is meant to search for intelligent life on earth. If the show breaks down, it is when Johnson employs his masterful technique in the service of pedestrian, elaborately illustrated one-liners . I get it haha.

In Various Video Game Controllers, Maps, and a Robotic Accessory he shows the history of gaming from the seminal proto-controllers made by Atari and Nintendo—used to play games like Duck Hunt and Super Mario, to current controllers such as the PS3 for Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty: Black Ops. He’s better off when his marvelously tessellated surfaces remain more enigmatic and the message more oblique and mysterious, when the Moorish complexities aren’t disrupted by tongue in cheek public service announcements.

Johnson’s work is a highly ordered kaleidoscopic tunnel-vision of alternative realities, built from abstract mathematical solids and flat forms. That said there is a strong sense of the here and now with references to America’s Republican and Democratic Doctrine to Interfere in the politics of weaker foreign countries. (Speaking of which, right now the USA has armed forces in 175 countries maintaining the status quo of a planet of haves and have nots that not even Dickens could have imagined. How the hell did our oil get underneath their sand anyway?)

The show’s title is taken from the 1986 movie called The Name of The Rose starring F. Murray Abraham and Sean Connery. Or perhaps it is based on some book by a guy named Umberto Eco published in 1983… This was a story where a ruggedly handsome monk with a sweet baritone brogue “struggl[ed] through a semiotically-enhanced medieval world”.

Johnson’s most recent drawings in the exhibition represent a series of roses. His interest in roses began with the rose as a symbol and how it is so commonly loaded with so much meaning that it tends to cancel out. These drawings were just exercises in formal composition rather than conceptual trope.

In the press release we read “….the last line of Eco’s novel  Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus: “Yesterday’s rose endures in its name, we hold empty names”.  This can also be said to apply to the name of the artist, a mutable symbol full of vulnerability and potentially dubious import.”

CRG Gallery, like most groundfloor Chelsea spaces, was designed to show big artworks. These supersized, mine is bigger than yours, dreary, brutal, minimalist white cube art prisons are deadly for this kind of art.  I would rather see this work wearing a silk robe in a dreamily lit, oak paneled, carpeted library of a brownstone with gorgeous moldings.  Butt…. where would I put my Richard Serra?

Meredith Rosenberg currently lives in New York City where she is the Gallery Director at BravinLee programs and partner in BravinLee editions (hand-knotted rugs by contemporary artists).  BravinLee programs is pleased to present Rebecca Morales’ new exhibition While There’s Calm opening Jan. 21, 2011