April 13th, 2010
Butt Johnson Gets Grilled
I first encountered Butt Johnson about ten years ago, when we were in school together. It is not a well-kept secret that Butt Johnson is a pseudonym, but his origins date back to around 1999. If I remember correctly, his first public appearance was in front of an ultra-serious panel of 3 professors who were meant to critique him. Butt arrived, no longer a 20 year old art student, but a balding middle-aged cartoonist, and refused to answer to his real name. What began as a game of shadow identities is shaping into a lifelong commitment of assumed identity.
Since it was my turn to grill someone for Rereveal, I decided to grill Butt.
David Kennedy Cutler: When Butt first came on the scene, did you anticipate that he would stick around for so long?
Butt Johnson: Ha… I had no idea what I was doing back then…I guess I was trying to get at a more flexible artistic identity as a student. So for my 1999 (or was it 2000?) year end critique I shaved my head into a bald cul-de-sac and wore a cheezy suit from a thrift store and told them my name was Butt Johnson. They actually got pissed at me, which I did not expect, and the critique of my work did not go well. I later posed in this costume again a year later for another performance where I made up a biographical history of Butt Johnson…which was pretty well recieved. I haven’t appeared in public as the character since college, but I’ve continued to make artwork under this name…and I think it’s come to represent something entirely different, and definitely not what I expected those 10 or 11 years ago. I may end up looking like Butt Johnson someday, but I don’t think I’ll ever be him again.
DKC: Your drawings are filled with symbolism. But you, yourself, Butt Johnson are kind of symbol. I know you don’t wake up everyday and think of yourself as a symbol, but do you have any thoughts about what your project represents?
BJ: I think Butt Johnson is in some ways an anti-symbol. I think of it as a way of antagonizing the idea of authorship, or at least toying with the realm of what an artistic “brand” can be. I’ve always found how meanings and language shift over time and context fascinating, and I guess I’ve undertaken the project of seeing if something ridiculous can come to represent complexity, seriousness, and (dare I say?) quality. I think my pursuit of a particular kind of visual vocabulary is important here, because using the language of “old master” drawings itself conveys a sense of consequence. I think of the device partially as experimental, and I do feel pervasive risk in the endeavor… I would like it to function as another layer added to my work, but I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat thinking…”what the hell am I doing?” So far, it seems like people take my drawings seriously, so maybe it’s working.
DKC: I think your drawings strike a great balance between humor and seriousness. It’s interesting that you mention “old masters”, because I believe we have certain myths about “old masters” as being obsessional in their craft. We imagine the labors that go into these masterpieces. Your drawings convey not only a lot of labor, but also compile a whole set of obsessions: from engraving to video game nerds, punk rock logos, monastic devotion, the search for extraterrestrial life, and to repetitive and mathematical symbols, etc. I could go on and on. But what seems to unify your subjects and your labor is an introverted obsession. There seems to be this panoramic study of obsession, a unity of nerds throughout time. Do you feel in some way that you are a voice for this channeled nerdiness?
BJ: Thanks Dave… glad you think they strike that balance. I think I may take issue with the idea of obsessiveness as a unifying principle though. For me that term has connotations that bespeak an end rather than a means to an end. I would associate it more with outsider art or art made in prisons, in that such works are made so with such a singular purpose and devotion that the end or “finished” products are almost arbitrary. I do find work like that interesting… but I think my drawings are based more on specific ideas, rather than just following a thread and seeing how far it will unravel. I usually start with some defined intent of where I want to go with an image, or some concepts that I think would speak well to each other. I do love sub-cultures, and you’re right at thinking that it might hint at an interest in nerdy obsessions. I sometimes think of myself as giving a historical voice to some of these sub-cultures, but mostly I depict them as either something lost and ruined as a Vanitas, or they are used to talk about something metaphorical to hint at some larger schema like unrequited love (the SETI project), narcissism (the graffiti drawing), or war (car bombs over Islamic geometric ornament). We live in a time and culture so abundant with images, sub-cultures, and the identities borne from them, I want to use them and their visual accoutrements and try to apply them to allegory and see if it works.
BJ (cont’d): The labor and craft, I think, are a necessary part of the language, and I really wish they weren’t so labor intensive…but I don’t think the drawings would work without it. Again, the “old master” language enables me to render things like video game controllers, the SETI screensaver, and pop-culture characters like Spongebob Squarepants in a way that takes them out of their normal contexts and allows them to talk about something else.
DKC: Thinking about unrequited love makes me realize how potentially sad some of your drawings can be. And speaking of unrequited love, I’ve just been looking at an image of your drawing, Operation Iraqi Freedom. You made that from 2005-2007, working away while the ‘Operation’ was turning into a catastrophe. It’s interesting that such a drawn-out meditation has such immediacy. Your patience was the opposite of most Americans. And now you are drawing all of these blooming flowers. Thoughts?
BJ: I think sentimentality and nostalgia are themes that run throughout my drawings…not sure why I am attracted to these…I think opening up a certain kind of vulnerability in art is something I’m after, and though that core of sincerity be sometimes wrapped in irony, I think it’s important that it’s there. The Iraq war drawings were my way of interpreting the folly of the American adventures in the Middle-east, on all sides. I find the boundaries between western and Islamic civilizations really interesting…and I wanted to try to use symbolism from medieval heraldry and Islamic ornament as visual stand-ins for some of these encounters. I also wanted the blown up cars to represent a kind of exploded frustration from within the Islamic world, and superimpose them as almost floral forms over the complex webs of geometry derived from the classical age of Islamic art. Patience seems like a relevant topic, and is surely something that is lacking in our national discourse. With the Iraq war in particular, it was so hastily put together there was literally no plan for what would happen after we took Baghdad, which of course led to many tragic and horrible circumstances. Surely the shortness of our national attention span is somewhat culpable for the failings in our statecraft. Unfortunately, in the “information age” I don’t know if there is a way of slowing down.
BJ (cont’d): The flowers are twofold…I am working on a bunch of drawings of roses for my upcoming show, “The Name of the Rose”, as the rose is a symbol so loaded with meaning that it tends to cancel it out…and then I did a series of drawings for a show in January calledThe Language of Flowers, which were kind of just exercises in formal compositions rather than a conceptual trope.
Butt Johnson’s upcoming solo exhibition, The Name of the Rose, at CRG gallery, is scheduled for November 2010.