Butt Johnson’s first solo show at CRG Gallery, The Name of the Rose, will feature drawings that fuse the idioms of old master drawings and engravings with a subject matter both contemporary and allegorical. In employing the visual language of engravings writ in the modern medium of ballpoint pen, Johnson generates a hybrid form of imagery, allowing the drawings to function as present-day artifacts from a bygone era.
The title of the show references Umberto Eco’s 1983 novel of the same name, and like Eco’s story of monks struggling through a semiotically enhanced medieval world, Johnson’s drawings can be looked at as a visual onion from which layers of associations can be peeled, deconstructed, and examined. Each drawing in the show, some of which have taken as long as two years to complete, functions as a kind of treatise, exploring a diverse range of overarching themes from love to war to cartography to architecture, and pointing to the history of learning and knowledge as it is processed through American popular culture in the age of video games and the Internet.
The work in the show spans a seven year period of production, and the extent of themes covered in the show vary widely. Unrequited Love (2003-2005) uses the S.E.T.I. project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) as a metaphor for its titled subject and contains the S.E.T.I. screensaver (an early example of distributed computing), as well as a traditional Dutch flower arrangement, interspersed with images of neurobiology andspace exploration, hearkening to questions of solitude both personal and celestial. A large scale drawing of a map of the world, entitled The Ambassadors(2008), fuses together the popular board game RISK with J.C.R.Columb’s 1886 map of the British Imperial Federation and the 1990’s arcade game Street Fighter II, while Starchitects (2009-2010) (a contemporary colloquial for very famous architects) depicts a version of the Tower of Babel derived from the PC game Civilization III that ascends through architectural history into the sky. The show also features multiple drawings of roses, here taken as a poignant symbol of the flexibility of meaning—as in the last line of the 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.