By Michael Wilson
Living in a city shrouded by the squalid yellow haze of light pollution, one easily forgets how confoundingly beautiful a clear night sky can be. Russell Crotty, a documentarian for the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (a body of amateur astronomers who assist the pros), experiences no such dilemma. Couched in the Solstice Peak Observatory, which he built himself, high in the Santa Monica mountains, he spends hours gazing into space through a ten-inch f/8 Newtonian reflector telescope and sketching what he sees. Yet while he is obviously transported by the transcendent grandeur of his observations, the silhouettes of buildings and trees that often jut from the margins of his images reveal a reassuringly earthbound willingness to take the rough with the smooth.
Crotty’s second exhibition in New York consisted of seven Lucite spheres suspended from the ceiling at around eye level. Varying in size from sixteen to forty-five inches in diameter, each one is cloaked in a meticulous representation of a constellation, star cluster, meteor shower, or other celestial formation rendered in black ballpoint pen with touches of watercolor. The use of short vertical strokes affords even areas of relative darkness a restlessly effervescent surface. Such precise application also distances the artist from any lingering association with the “abject” club of the mid-’90s—Sean Landers, Mike Kelley, and others—who shared his fondness for low-rent materials. Crotty made his name drawing surfers, but unwavering discipline has taken him light-years from the life’s-a-beach sensibility.
While Crotty also presents his drawings in more predictable formats, globes seem particularly appropriate. They nudge the viewer toward an altered perception of scale and perspective that encompasses the infinite while remaining centered on a discrete sculptural object. Turning the view of space to which we are accustomed inside out, they remind us of what we know but have been conditioned by pictorial convention to disregard: that the sky is not a flat backdrop but rather a three-dimensional space in which we are adrift.
The only information we are provided with about most of Crotty’s globes comes from their factual titles: M13 Globular Star Cluster in Hercules; or NGC 6992, Eastern Loop of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus (both 2002). But one work, The Leonid Meteor Shower, 2002, incorporates a passage of text. Filling the landscape that covers the globe’s south pole, this poetic, diaristic account of watching the event emphasizes the line between part-timer and professional scientist that the artist effectively straddles. Spiced with as many references to his immediate surroundings as to the universe at large, the description stands revealed to be colored by human emotion.
Despite its visual echoes of cool objective record, Crotty’s project is indisputably born of passion. It also relies on memory, as the artist retains images from his sessions at the telescope in order to reproduce them later. As every schoolkid knows, the light from distant stars can take so long to reach us that we may often be looking at objects that no longer exist. What Crotty draws is therefore a map of time itself, in which the patience of the artist and the fascination of the viewer are positioned in relation to the totality of their context. But what could be a pretentious and alienating enterprise is redeemed by the humble enthusiasm of its creator.