This Week In New York

twi-ny talks
February 2nd, 2011


As we made our way last Saturday through Butt Johnson’s exquisite display of remarkably detailed drawings at CRG Gallery in Chelsea, an older couple was marveling at the show, using the gallery-supplied magnifying glasses to peer deeply into such enchanting and engaging ballpoint-pen-on-paper works as “Starchitects,” “Various Controllers, Maps, and a Robotic Accessory,” “The Ambassadors,” and a series of roses. The woman then wondered aloud, “What kind of name is Butt Johnson?” Indeed, what kind of name is Butt Johnson? The title of the RISD graduate’s first solo show, “The Name of the Rose,” was inspired by the last line of Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel: “Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names,” which Eco explains in the postscript means that “in this imperfect world, the only imperishable things are ideas.” The pseudonymous artist, who is also a graphic designer, gallery owner, and recipient of a 2010 Pollock-Krasner Fellowship, agreed to talk to twi-ny about his name and his imperishable ideas under one condition — that we keep his real name a mystery, at least for now.

twi-ny: Your first solo show features stunning works that mix historical motifs and pop-culture references, evoking old master drawings, obsessive outsider art, and modern technology. What specifically attracts you to to the ballpoint-pen-on-paper format? Would you consider yourself an obsessive artist, given the amount of detail that appears in your work, which takes years to complete?

Butt Johnson: I’ve been drawing with ballpoint pens since I was a kid, mostly in the margins of school notebooks . . . but in my last year in college I reached a kind of threshold with the material where I realized if I handled the ink right I could actually mimic the language of old master drawings/engravings. Since then I have been honing the craft and learning how to draw from some of my favorite old (and new) masters. I think I’m getting better, but every time I see a Dürer or a Piranesi engraving I know I have a lifetime more of learning ahead of me. I have tried ballpoint on other surfaces besides paper, such as Mylar and Formica; it does interesting things and warrants further exploration, I think, but paper contextualizes the work within a tradition, which is nice.

As for obsessiveness, I actually don’t consider myself obsessive and may take issue with the term. While the drawings do take a good amount of time to complete, I think they are very focused on specific themes and arrangements. For me the term obsessive connotes a kind of naïveté (and not necessarily in a negative way), but I think if I compare my drawings to the kind of language that I am aping, it doesn’t even hold a candle to the amount of skill and concentration that existed in previous eras. Maybe in our lightning-speed contemporary culture it may seem like it would take obsession to make this kind of work, but honestly I spend much of my day dicking around on the internet just like everyone else.

Butt Johnson could have called his show “A Rose by Any Other Name…”
twi-ny: On the CRG website, your face is blurred out, and your name is clearly a pseudonym. Why have you decided to keep your identity in the dark? And why choose such a humorous name for such ostensibly serious work?

BJ: My identity is kind of only half in the dark. . . . I don’t try to keep it absolutely hidden, but at the same time I enjoy the anonymity that both the pseudonym and the blurred-out face afford. The name Butt Johnson was a joke I pulled out of the air back in undergrad, but I found it useful in terms of how I see both the idea of authorship and the branding of works of art, so I decided to keep it.

twi-ny: In another part of your life, you run a New York City gallery. What are some of the main differences in how you approach art from those two varying perspectives?

BJ: Ha! I do indeed run an art gallery (with two wonderful partners), and approach it in a very different manner than the ways in which I produce my own work. I love doing studio visits with other artists, and the gallery helps me leave behind my drawings as a filter through which to view other works of art. In this way I can keep my mind open and curious and engage in a very direct level with artists whom I support and can work towards furthering their careers. And as a bonus, it gets me out of the house.

“The Name of the Rose” continues at the CRG Gallery through February 19. Johnson is also part of the group show “Cover Version LP” at BAM through March 20, a collection of reimagined album covers by more than two dozen artists, including Johnson’s take on Terry Snyder and the All Stars’ 1960 smash, PERSUASIVE PERCUSSION VOLUME 2.