September, 2004

By Gean Moreno


American culture, from its inception, has had a shadowy underbelly of private eccentrics, undecipherable introverts and laborious homebodies. It’s almost like an undercurrent or, better yet, a subterranean stream. It probably begins with Emily Dickinson (although Thoreau and Emerson may have a place in it) and includes Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Joseph Cornell, Harry Smith, Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman, Jess, Jack Smith and others. Films, texts, collages, paintings, costumes, music and objects-it’s not the medium that is important to this tradition. It’s an obsessive defense of private experience, a struggle to keep language-visual, verbal, cinematic, sculptural, whatever-from being dumbed down, an understanding of the quotidian (and of America) as a savagely complicated texture, and a desire to reveal just how intricate the self and its activities can be. The exhibitions of the last year at the Miami Art Museum have included at least one artist belonging to this other American tradition-Bruce Conner’s fabulously fucked up assemblage The Bride (1 960) was recently out. A show entitled Visual Poetics showcased an array of wonderfully weirdo book artists. Joseph Cornell was the centerpiece of another exhibition that also included Jess and part of Berman’s masterpiece Semina. Maybe it’s just me but I feel the MAM preparing itself (and its audience) to become the institution of America’s majestic underbelly modernity. RUSSELL CROTTY’s exhibition “Globe Drawings (March 5-June 27, 2004) gently drags it further in this direction.

Tenaciously methodological and committed to empirical observation with a faith that may belong to another century, Crotty’s ink drawings of night skies result from patient stargazing. Night after night he goes out to his homemade observatory on the hills of Malibu and maps the position of celestial bodies against the silhouettes of the landscape around him. Despite a rigorous attention to detail, these drawings activate a charming amateurishness, which is precisely what allows external concerns to be considered and strange referential paths to be followed. An anachronistic astronomical encyclopedia that values an unflagging drive to do the same over and over, Crotty’s drawings end up feeling, paradoxically, more like a meditation on the fastidious differences that mark repetition, on the multiplicity that inevitably disrupts any form of identity and sameness. They’re a lesson in the strange games that, from subatomic to galactic levels, uniformity plays with its own undoing.

For the show at MAM, Crotty rendered his drawings on globes, so that they become three-dimensional efforts. Although there is something amazingly exact and resilient in Crotty’s repetitious process, less can be said of his investigation of sculptural space. His exclusive use of spheres gives the sense that he’s left something unconsidered. There is no three- dimensional surprise anywhere to make looking difficult and rewarding. The only thing available to investigation is surface illustration. And even the notion of surface- and its myriad metaphorical possibilities as skin and palimpsest-is left untouched. 

There’s something more exciting in the gargantuan books, so robust with historical association, that Crotty made a few years ago. They plugged into the history of the book as artifact, a lineage that includes illuminated manuscripts, decadently deluxe nineteenth century limited editions, graphically self-aware novels and the journals and diaries of explorers, naturalists and early astronomers. Moreover, their physical scale opened questions regarding the relation of books to portability and the rise mercantile cultures 

The globes, on the other hand, don’t disturb with hyperbolic scale or abrupt distortions and fall short of highlighting historical associations that may tie them to old globes and other instruments of early cartography. However, while the feeling lingers that these sculptural efforts passed up a wonderful opportunity to explore all sorts of issues and associations, not everything is lost: the magic of Crotty’s stoically tenacious drawings remains unmarred.