Art In America

May, 1997

Russell Crotty at Dan Bernier

By Michael Duncan

For the past few years, Russell Crotty – best known for his densely packed grid drawings of individual ocean waves – has shifted his obsessive attention to the skies. Crotty’s renderings result from his own telescope observations; astronomically correct, they conform to the guidelines of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, of which he is a card-carrying member. Filling grids (which imply endless multiplicity and variation_ with drawings of planets and galaxies, Crotty demonstrates his own role as a kind of chronicler of infinity. His unlikely mission leaves him in a quintessentially Romantic position: alone on a hilltop, peeking through a telescope and sketching away.

In this exhibition he devised a perfect format for his findings: three large-scale, homemade atlases, which include his India-ink astronomical observations as well as landscape drawings and poetic texts. Each atlas was presented on its own table, with a gallery assistant on hand to turn pages for viewers. In the nearly 4-foot-high Atlas of Galaxy Drawings, galaxies with names like “Stephans Quintet” and “NGC6181” are portrayed via clusters of hundreds of dots, each representing some unfathomable heavenly body zillions of light years away. These orbs function as Benday dots forming fields that represent the galaxies’ spiraling or swathlike shapes. Crotty introduces each galaxy with a page that continuously repeats its name in hand-lettered script. On other pages, grids of galaxies wildly intensify the cosmic spectacle.

In comparison, the territories depicted in the Atlas of Lunar Drawings seem downright homey. Craters of the moon are explored in detail, with nuanced textures and colorings. In this more looselys5tructured book, Crotty includes examples of what he calls “poetic diatribes,” evocative odes to the Los Angeles night sky and laments about the coastline littered with “fucking condos.”

The last book, Five Nocturnes, is perhaps the most stunning with its five drawings each folding out to a length of nearly 10 feet. These drawings range from a depiction of galactic clusters to a landscape that contains an array of surveillance equipment monitoring a comet as it moves across the night sky. A quirky humor permeates Crotty’s vision of the cosmos. In a landscape drawing that includes a starry sky, he fills the foreground with a transcription of dialogue from the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Playing off the film’s setting in the Swiss Alps, Crotty contours the text to conform to the mountainous terrain. Bridging the gap between science and art, Crotty’s subjective gaze is by no means strictly observational; it measures and records the emotive power of the skyscape.