Art in America

October, 2006

Russell Crotty at CRG


In the tradition of the livre d’artiste, Russell Crotty obsessively annotates hand-drawn field books and charts useful for scaling boulders and tracking celestial phenomena. (The objects shown were dated 2006.) Relatively small in the context of this exhibition, Crotty’s linen-bound, ink and watercolor on paper Twilight in the West opens to a span of 14 1/2 by 31 inches on a shelf designed for its presentation. Regarding himself as an observer midway between earth and sky, Crotty prints in unaffected capital letters: “Winter Joshua Tree. Cold north wind howls out of the mountains. Sirius the brightest star rises above the huge boulder forma- tions.” Crotty writes of both the boulder and the night sky, a nota- tion that introduces his interest in bouldering, a relatively safe, problem-solving sport useful as high-impact training for climbers. He leads the viewer on an expedition into sites ideal for these adventurous pursuits. 

The 40 pages of the some- what larger Nightfall include images drawn in black ballpoint as well as text, and feature the silhouette of a trophy home-an emblem of the introduction of the vernacular to a coastal scrub of chaparral. Above is a full moon and a night sky that is a field of obsessive markings, with named stars like white holes burning in the darkness. Bound in rug- ged nylon, the 20 pages in the 126-by-56-by-33-inch work titled Field Charls for Selected Boul- der Problems rest on a collaps- ible chart table reminiscent of campaign furnishings designed for use in the field. The pages feature large drawings of boul- ders to be scaled, interspersed with vellum overlays of routes marked in color, each positing solutions to the ascent problem. The paths of greatest difficulty are drawn in red. Such drawings are annotated with observations concerning tests of endurance, including “good problem at the lower camp ground-a freaky downclimb.” Turned here by white-gloved gallery assistants, the pages can also be rolled up in purpose-built carrying tubes. 

The roughly 68-by-124-by-68- inch apparatus of Field Charls for Nocturnal Recreations was designed for the transport, stor- age and display of 10 expansive drawings focusing on named and numbered stars, each paired with a related vellum overlay. The assistants offered each sheet in turn, lifting it carefully over a roll that cradled the pages previously viewed. Here were galactic clusters, numbered stars, the Milky Way writ large, followed by a short list of its spiral arms, familiar Orion, Cygnus and Perseus

The guileless, systematic naming and illustration of these celestial arrangements seems not unlike the problem-solving that is at the heart of bouldering-matters of experience and observation. At the border between the unknown and the now-overbuilt wilderness, Crotty rants against the encroachment of “wealthy enclaves of trophy vineyards,” assured that rocks do not exist to serve as a base for a landscape of resorts and condominiums.