School of Visual Arts Continuing Education Blog

February 4th, 2011
The Name of Heroes

 Michael Bilsborough
The Name of Heroes

“Butt Johnson” is the jocular pseudonym of a young male artist with a show at CRG Gallery called The Name of the Rose.  He also happens to be a well-established “art world professional.”  How he has the time, after his day job, to labor over these insistently rendered drawings seems otherworldly in our City of rapid-fire turnover.  Then again, New York could be the capital of obsessives needing an outlet, and of the battered seeking the shelter of escapism.  He takes his treatments in large doses: most of the drawings in the show took two years or more to complete.  With microscopic scrutiny, Butt Johnson drafts mechanical rigidity, floral undulation, and meshes of gauzy moiré.  Along with the technological, architectural imagery that is his specialty, Butt Johnson employs semaphoric signs and didactic designs in order to connect applied science advancement, youth entertainment, foreign relations, and functional art.  His liberal range of images could almost be countermanded by the austerities of his merciless rigor, yet each drawing seems alive with curiosity and an abundance of really cool stuff to show your friends.

To crack the code of Butt Johnson’s work, I sought him out for a q&a about his show.

Butt Johnson, Unrequited Love, 2003-5

MB: I’ve been thinking lots about your drawings. One detail nagging at me is fromUnrequited Love, the piece about SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. What is this code you’ve included near the bottom?

Butt Johnson, Unrequited Love (detail)

BJ: The detail has the first two lines from the Enuma Elish, the Sumerian creation myth. It’s cuneiform writing. The writer Zachariah Sitchen has a theory I’ve been interested in since high school about extraterrestrials being responsible for the evolution of man, and one of his (very shaky) evidence points is a Sumerian tablet that contains a map of the solar system that includes 12 planets, which is the diagram below. I love these kind of wack job conspiracies, but also the poem is relevant to my show.

e-nu-ma e-liš la na-bu-ú šá-ma-mu
When the sky above was not named,
šap-liš am-ma-tum šu-ma la zak-rat
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name

Sumerian comics

MB: You are interested in conspiracy theories, yet you titled your show after the Umberto Eco book that isn’t the one most closely responsive to conspiracy theory, which is Foucault’s Pendulum. I admit that both of these books are over my head, but I do know some of what they are about.

BJ: I guess at this point i’m more interested in the idea of conspiracy theories than in the theories themselves, but I do like to occasionally throw a bone to some of the musings of the imagination of my adolescence. I think Foucault’s Pendulum is mostly about how ludicrous and contrived most conspiracy theories are, but also the extent to which the mind can find and form complicated patterns (and much of it was over my head as well– its supposed to read that way I think) . The Name of the Rose is a little more gritty and backwards looking, but throws in a lot of anachronisms and mixes up what we do know about the medieval mind with what we surmise about it… and how flexible that gap actually is. It’s filled with semiotic theory and nods to postmodern writers.  Plus, it’s an awesome murder mystery and contains one of the greatest descriptions of an orgasm in all of literature. The ideal book for me to look towards in thinking about the work in the show.

MB: What are the nanomachines you’ve drawin in Kunstformen der Natur, and why do you associate them with that title? The Haeckel book by that name focuses on organic specimens, while nanomachines are technological.

Butt Johnson, Kunstformen der Natur (Early Nanomachines), 2010

BJ: Many of the nanomachines in that drawing are early scientific attempts at making simple gears, motors, and structures out of atoms. They are only moderately functional and mostly date to the early 2000s. They are meant to point to the diatoms (tiny sea creatures) in Haeckel’s lithographs, and while I wouldn’t compare my work to his in terms of its scientific relevance, I would like to tie the development of technological evolution to biological evolution, and try to begin cataloguing some of the new forms that have begun appearing on the micro level as a result of human endeavour.

MB: Do you mean “evolution” in its literal sense? If so, then can you really use that word in describing technology? Evolution requires reproduction, natural selection, and vast stretches of time. Technology is man-made, purpose-driven, and barely a blip in the entire 4.5 billion years of our planet.

BJ: I think there is an evolutionary process taking place in our technology.  The theorist Dan Denett has described the evolutionary principle thus: variation, heredity, and selection — and these features can be said to apply to our technologies in many ways, though it may at first glance look different from what we think of as natural selection. Susan Blackmore has a great TED talk on what she calls “techno-memes.” I’m not specifically endorsing her theory, but I do find it fascinating.

MB: Your drawing, Starchitects, is my favorite in the show. It seems to diagram the course of technology, at least as it applies to building habitable structures, but stops short of attempts to predict the future of architecture. Did you consciously restrain yourself from speculating about what could come next?

Holy cow

BJ: Glad you like that one, it was a long slog for me to make it. I think I was trying to get at several points with the image (which was derived from the video game Civilization III). That the “progress” of architecture is seen by many as a kind of mythological determinism — and relating that to the Tower of Babel, a symbol of hubris and folly, would be a useful way to call bullshit on it while simultaneously paying respect to the centuries of struggle and innovation involved. I’m not sure I was really thinking of the future in either case, but I think a lot of archetypical myths have stayed with us for so long because they retain their usefulness as metaphors: they can tell us a lot about who we are and our place in the world — or maybe just point out that finding out these things may ultimately prove ridiculous and impossible.

Butt Johnson, Starchitects (detail), 2007-8 (Please pardon the reflective glare)

MB: You also invoke video games in two other pieces: Various Controllers, Maps, and a Robotic Accessory, 2007 and The Ambassadors, 2008. I can imagine how these controllers would fit into the nexus where biological evolution meets technological evolution, because now video games and physiology are bridged by Wii and Kinect.  Even more direct interaction can’t be far off.  But I’m more hesitant about interpreting The Ambassadors, in which characters from Street Fighter meet characters from Mortal Kombat. They could be ambassadors to each other, but how are they ambassadors to us? (By the way, I love the anamorphic Grateful Dead logo!)

BJ: I have an orthographic drawing for a Wii controller in the background in Various Controllers, anticipating its arrival. That drawing is based on a Piranesi etching, Various Lamps of Bronze and a Vase Encrusted with Cameos (1778), where he is cataloging ancient Roman artifacts both for archeological purposes as well as to revive some of the Roman design principles.  I wanted to do something similar, show there is a design process at work but also have it function as a kind of catalogue.

Butt Johnson, Various Controllers, Maps, and a Robotic Accessory, 2007

Piranesi you so crazy

BJ (continued): The Ambassadors uses gaming from a different angle, it invokes the 1957 board game RISK as a means of mapping the world. I see this as a particularly distorted (and useful) view, and I wanted to play upon the language of cartography as it is filtered through popular culture. I used JCR Columb’s 1886 map of the Imperial British Federation as a template, and RISK fits this well too as a game of world conquest created at the height of the Cold War (the game board replaces Russia with Ukraine). In this vein, the Street Fighter characters function as “ambassadors” for their respective countries, and are accompanied too by their national flowers and animals. The Mortal Kombat characters are meant to evoke a more mythological sphere, and I used the “undead” characters from the game and Goro as the centerpiece, who is a half- human dragon. Get your braces out!

I’m a huge admirer of Holbein as well.  The anamorphic skull in his Ambassadors is, (according to David Hockney’s theory), a clue as to his use of optics to create his paintings — so I wanted to use the Grateful Dead version as my own clue — towards Holbein’s allegorical painting and this memento mori.

Anamorphic skull from Holbein

MB: At the arcade, Mortal Kombat was the prime competitive arena in which the competitors – often strangers – would not have to face each other: no contact, not even eye contact. And then Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo brought the arcade into the home, where kids could compete against siblings and friends. So those games did reshape interface venues between people, making them “ambassadorial” in many different ways. Of course, now gamers can connect to worldwide networks and play against faceless opponents in other countries. Your two drawings, Various Controllers and The Ambassadors, really pinpoint this reality.

BJ: Yeah thats an interesting way to look at it: I suppose we need avatars now as “ambassadors” just to interact with each other… which kind of gives you the creeps…

MB: When you note that the MK characters evoke a mythological sphere, do you mean that they are part of the mythology celebrated by the generation that grew up with Mortal Kombat? I remember the waves of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. For a few years, those games defined the culture of the arcade, which for me meant scores of boys getting dropped off by their moms at the suburban mall and then crowding around to watch the marathon gladiator tournaments, some of which ideally would end in a “fatality,” always grisly yet not without humor. Mortal Kombat had more “realistic,” cinematic graphics thanStreet Fighter, a characteristic that made the morbid violence even more convincing – and notorious. I ask about the mythology because I believe pop cultural figures – fictional heroes and villains – can comprise a polytheistic mythology for us to follow. Yet our generation still seems dominated by the mythologies of our parents and grandparents. For example, take the movies based on DC and Marvel Comics characters. We have almost a dozen Batmanmovies, at least two of them classics, and a handful of Superman movies, more on the way, big budget Spiderman movies and theater. These characters appeared before WWII.Fantastic Four and X-Men appeared in 1961 and 1963 and still survive as reference points for our peers, while Spawn, revered by my teenage classmates, seems left behind. Has our generation embraced and canonized new mythologies? Do we just append our parents’ mythologies? Or will our mythologies be displaced by those of previous generations?


BJ: Totally!  I think with the MK guys I’m pointing to these kinds of polytheistic mythologies and how the characters can tend to transcend any kind of real-world referent. I also have the “3 muses” at the top of the drawing: Princess Leia, the Sorceress from He-Man, and Cheetara from Thundercats — holding Japanese signs that read “hadouken”, “shoryken”, and “tiger uppercut.”  I used to go to arcades and watch the older kids play each other.  I was too sucky to step up, honestly (when the games came out for Sega Genesis I was psyched).  The real masters knew all the cool death moves, so it really was kind of like the gladiators of yore.

I’m also interested in how these mythologies either become intergenerational (or don’t). I think there are a dozen Batman movies because he is a compelling figure upon whom many storylines and angles can be imposed, from Adam West’s (amazing) campy version to Tim Burton’s gothy one and beyond. They’re all Batman, but the mythology can be exploited in so many different directions – I guess just like a real religion, in many ways. Our generation has its own entirely different mythologies, (the on-screen death of Optimus Prime in 1986 was a big deal for a lot of us), but some of them are being reinvented for the next generations and turned completely digital, etc (Transformers, TMNT), while others are swept into the dust bin of history.  I made some work in 2006-08 of elements of popular culture in ruin, trying to get at some of these ideas, like this litho Veduta del Castello di Greyskull:

Butt Johnson, Veduta del Castello di Greyskull


BJ (continued): Remember D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths? I loved that book as a kid, and i remember how alive it made all the Greek Gods seem, and on the last page was a drawing of a bunch of statues in ruin, showing that even gods could die. I thought that was so sad— and now as an adult I see how poignant it is.

MB: Your drawing, Unrequited Love, centers on the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Are you including this as a literal issue in your work? Or is this another dimension of your study of mythology? Are you actually interested in SETI, or is it more that you find belief in alien life to be a rich, indelible mythology? The composition is emblematic, like heraldry or manuscript design – purposefully decorative – so the work seems to consciously fetishize the perennial, yet marginal, quest to find alien life.


BJ: The SETI project is something I am personally interested in, and I think it would really change the way that we think about ourselves and about life on Earth if we discovered other intelligent life in the universe. The drawing isn’t totally about that, though. I’m kind of a hopeless romantic, and I realized the SETI project was a fantastic allegory for unrequited love, which is to me one of the most profound kinds of love.

The composition invokes 19th century securities engravings, a language that is very useful in describing complicated themes, as it allows me to embed meaning in ornament and vignettes, and thus cover a variety of bases. Interesting too that the language comes from a form of bond (financial securities), it references a concrete investment in something, which is relevant as well. I included a Dutch flower arrangement in the background as a kind of vanitas, but flowers are also literally plants’ sexual organs, and we humans have coopted them as a metaphorical means of displaying our affection for others, requited or not. The kind of pining for a connection that cannot be achieved is so powerful, and it fits so nicely into the search for life on a much grander scale.  I wonder, would it give us meaning as a species if we found life elsewhere? Are we alone?