Issue 20 / Pages 17-19
By Michael Duncan and Bruce Davis
1 Towering over Russell Crotty’s recent exhibition is a 14 x 19-foot grid filled with 38,800 drawings of stick-figures riding waves, scrawled in ball-point ink. From a distance, the grid shimmers with an “all-over pattern, looking like vertical stripes of electrocardiograms or Chinese characters. Up close, the waves come into focus as staccato images in horizontal narrative sequences, crashing to shore with varied trajectories: angled, barbed-wired, spiraled.
Crotty’s obsessive markings are based on trademark nervous doodles he scribbled in margins throughout junior high and high school. A few years ago, he returned to them by sketching waves in free-wheeling notebooks which also record the chatter of a group of funked-out surfers at part real, part imaginary beaches along the West Coast. This act of recovery from Crotty’s own past gives his drawings a conceptual richness which augments their formal intricacy.
His grid developed as a means of organizing the doodles sequentially on the notebook pages. Like Muybridge strips or comic-book frames, the action advances to its destiny as either nirvana or wipe-out. And then, with another wave, the narrative starts again. Reading the sequences, this repeated story takes on a complex kind of poetic meter. A violent wave will be followed by a mild loopy one, which is followed by a feathery one, which is in turn followed by a violent one. On an impossible errand to create a history of the ocean, each frame of the grid is attacked in a passionate caffeinated rush. The waves feel caught, wrestled down, ridden to shore and curbed by the drawings’ orderly geometry. Here, geometry dominates gesture. The grid shores up each frame, accruing images to become a single multitudinous thing: simultaneously one drawing and thousands.
Spun out from the massive grid are blown-up single images on stained paper and canvas. Crotty often isolates a wave-doodle he’s saved since adolescence, projects it onto a large sheet of stained paper and memorializes it with heavy filled- in ink markings. Aged in spilled coffee and dripped artichoke juice, these drawings are recreated as heroic artifacts, testaments of Crotty’s ongoing commitment to capture an image, to record what the ocean looks like, to draw. Isolated from the profusion in the grid, the blown-up single images become Ab-Ex virtuoso gestures. Yet this grandeur is tamed by the image’s origin in a multitude. Each “heroic” wave has literally thousands of similar tiny counterparts. Mirroring the tension between one of the single images and the multitude is the vastness of Crotty’s subject: the ocean.
In the oil painting, This Ain’t No Goon Lagoon (1991), 12 canvases form a grid in which are drawn blown-up wave-doodles. The rectangular canvases act as framing devices, but here Crotty overlaps the images, spilling part of some of the waves onto adjoining canvases. By opening up the space around the large images, Crotty gives the work an elegant visual rhythm. And by unravelling the intricate formal properties of the grid, Crotty opens the door for experimentation in pure gestural drawing.
Crotty is on a spiritual mission, imbuing his formal constraints with a vigor that goes beyond autobiography. The austere form of his grids reins in his exuberant wave drawings and delineates a philosophical space which treats the ocean as incontrovertible fact: variable, insistent and relentless. His use of repetition in the drawings has more to do with Agnes Martin than Andy Warhol. In spite of the sensory overload, the all-over patterning of the grids negates itself, achieving an odd “oneness” that conjures up Minimal art. Crotty has taken the contemplative form of a Martin grid and dared to fill it.
A nineteen-sixties sensibility inhabits these works. With none of the desiccation of so much neo-conceptual work, Crotty’s drawings overflow with energy. Here there is work to be done, paintings to be made, space to be filled. With fierce dedication, Crotty respects the nutty persistence of the existential act-the virtue of recording all those waves-and trusts in the eternal value of a thankless, unending task: to record every wave, to watch every surfer, to document each figure’s struggle to stand up against the undertow.
Michael Duncan is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles.
2 Probably unique among leisure activities, surfing occupies an extraordinary place in popular culture. No other sport-not football, baseball or soccer-has permeated so many areas of society, including music, fashion, motion pictures and language. Perhaps due to surf culture having been centered in the capital of entertainment, and not the capital of art, surfing has not had many interpreters in the visual arts-at least none as directly inspired as Russell Crotty. In the nineteen sixties, a number of Los Angeles artists were apparently influenced by surf culture; John McCracken’s leaning slabs, Craig Kaufman’s vacuum-formed Plexiglas bubbles and Ronald Davis’s Dodecagons relate to the surfboard not only in the similarity of materials but also in the artists’ reverential attitude for the “objecthood” of the artwork, a view paralleled by the surfer’s respect for his board. But the claims made for the luminosity of Finish Fetish art and its links to the American tradition of transcendental landscape painting seem, in retrospect, far-fetched. The art’s depth often failed to extend much beyond its silky and opalescent surfaces.
The principal cultural images that arose out of surfing were not McCracken’s sculptures so much as the figures of Surfer Joe and Rat Fink, and the art of Big Daddy Roth. The dumbness of these cartoonish types would find a niche in figurative art in the nineteen eighties, in the paintings of Robert Williams and others. While this art captures the jokey comraderie of surfers, it captures little of its essence. The Finish Fetish artists’ interest in high-gloss technology and the Neo-Expressionists’ celebration of fun are certainly a part of the surfing experience, but their art says nothing of the mystic bond between the surfer and the sea that is at the heart of the sport.
In stark contrast to these predecessors, Crotty’s paintings and drawings do. Their structural grid recalls not only high-art sources like the work of Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt, but also comic-strip panels from the magazine Surfer, and film strips from the movie, The Endless Summer. The repetitive images of rolling waves in the Worksheet drawings and the monumental Plaid Shirts and Tubing Offshore Filth invite the viewer to connect the images sequentially, but strict linear readings are neither intended nor possible. Instead, the countless sketches of crashing waves, repeating over and over, echo the real movement of the sea. The pictures are hypnotic and absorbing, drawing the viewer into the natural motion just as surfers become attuned to the sea’s repetitive action.
Surfers recognize that each wave presents a different challenge, and to succeed in the sport one must zero in on its distinctive personality. As if in consequence of this fact, large works by Crotty often focus on a single wave. Their particular images come from sketches in Crotty’s 1974 surfing journal, which have been magnified onto large sheets of coffee-stained paper. The tiny strokes of the original are recreated on a grand tsunami-like scale through hundreds of patiently- applied strokes of blue ink, merging the macro- and microscopic views in a single image. His analytical probings of the structure and movement of the sea are the descendents of Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of animal and human locomotion, while the graffiti-like marks of ball-point pen over the surface recall Cy Twombly s scrawls. But graphology and automatic writing are less Crotty’s concerns than are the direct and almost primal autographic recording and ordering of the surfer’s (and artist’s) sensations and observations. These drawings operate on two planes simultaneously-with a cerebral ordering and an empathic physicality.
Bruce Davis is Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.