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The New York Times

Art in Review
February 4th, 2011
BUTT JOHNSON: ‘The Name of the Rose’
Art in Review

 Ken Johnson

548 West 22nd Street
Chelsea
Through Feb. 19

With ballpoint pens and the skills of an old-time draughtsman-engraver, Butt Johnson — the pseudonym of a young New York artist — creates visually riveting drawings addressing newsy topics like terrorist bombing, nanotechnology, video games and postmodern architecture.

Back in the days of Beaux-Arts academies, Mr. Johnson’s technical refinement would not have seemed unusual. In the context of art today, in which “de-skilled” painting and drawing tend to be viewed as more sophisticated if not authentic, his assiduous craftsmanship is admirably offbeat. With its intricately, almost microscopically rendered pastiches of architectural ornament, allegorical figures, photo- and digital-based imagery and even wild-style graffiti, it is the kind of work that makes you wonder, “How long did it take to do that?”

Mr. Johnson’s pictorial imagination, however, is more like that of an op-ed illustrator. In one piece in his CRG Gallery show, the wreckage of bombed cars on an expanse of Islamic trellis work too obviously juxtaposes the least and most inspiring aspects of Middle Eastern history. A drawing of video-game hand controllers that looks as if it was found in an early 20th-century encyclopedia sheds little light on the social psychology of its subject. “Starchitects,” which updates Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel” with period styles rising from Romanesque at the bottom to glassy postmodern at the top, is a terrific feat of fine-grained drawing, but many illustrators have made similar parodies. What besides technique does Mr. Johnson care most deeply about? That is what I want to know.