September, 2006

Russell Crotty


Russell Crotty combines the infinite and the everyday in the devotional and clear-minded manner of a scientist or a monk, rendering vast stretches of the universe in precise crosshatched ballpoint. These images of fields of stars dotted with the occasional orange planet have covered appropriately large expanses of paper in oversize books displayed on library-like tables and paper-covered spheres. The books and the spheres require of the viewer a kind of physical participation analogous to the perception of the original: They must be looked at page by p~ge, surface by surface, so that one’s mind pieces together the subject’as it does when apprehending the vast arc of the real thing. In this slow and laborious method, the artist has found the perfect form for a subject so big and profound as to be nearly impossible to get one’s mind around. This is not the sublime of Caspar David Friedrich-it is not terrifying, nor does it deal in any kind of transcendent morality- but it is sublimely slow.

These works neatly link diagram with diary entry, the metaphori- cal with the scientifically correct, the objective with the personal. The works are in fact fairly technically accurate (Crotty maintains a makeshift observatory on his Southern California property and uses, among others, a ten-inch f/8 Newtonian telescope), but they are anything but clinical. They translate the sky into marks of varying density of which Crotty said in a 2003 interview, “You can almost sense what my blood sugar’s doing by the pressure on the page.”

Among the works in the artist’s recent show at CRG Gallery was one of the large-scale star atlases as well as a set of books, in watercolor and ink wash, depicting large rocks and clusters of rocks-a proposition that is less visually imposing than the celestial panoramas, instead approaching intimacy with the natural world through smaller and more knowable portions. Each drawing represents a rock face that the artist himself has climbed, and each page features two transparent vellum overlays annotated with observations about the climbing route, some written in rock-climber shorthand, along with more rueful observations about the locale. QUIET, reads one, EXCEPT FOR THE SAD DRONE OF SUVS. 

The SUV appears with some frequency in Crotty’s recent work; as an icon of suburban sprawl and ecological mismanagement, it’s an appropriate demon in Crotty’s symbolic universe. In some works- nighttime landscapes under light-polluted skies, the occasional satcl- lite dish or cantilevered house popping up among the trees and mountains-man-made and natural environments coexist, if not exactly peacefully, then at least without comment. But in others the landscape is literally filled in with a damning, if slightly abstracted, handwritten exegesis on the creep of development into the natural areas that the artist frequents. In A California Diatribe, 2006, a narrow, horizontal book that one walks the length of to read as if hiking alongside it, he re-creates the topography of the desert, hills, and mountains near his home with text that rises and falls in a kind of narrative contour map. One spread takes its language directly from the real estate market, a series of disingenuous claims bitterly appropri- ated by the artist: WATCH THE DOLPHINS PLAY; LUXURY UPGRADES WITH ART STUDIO; ARCHITECTURE AS ART.

Crotty’s rage in this work and in Twilight in the West, 2.006, is startling, to be sure, but it highlights the paradox at the heart of his project: Nature is lovely, but the ravages of civilization create the work’s bracing tension-the appearance of the satellite dish under the dome of the sky conjures an undeniable frisson. As with Wallace Stevens’s jar on a Tennessee hill, nature arranges itself around the interloper, and art is the result.