Issue 77, P.70-75
September, 2003

The many moons of an amateur astronomer

By Benjamin Weissman

‘We drag lawn chairs and sleeping bags down to the amphitheater above the studio. A calm dry night … No Santa Ana winds… Some veiled streaky clouds somewhat illuminated by light pollution; it being a Saturday night, more entertainment lighting bumps the ambient glow up a notch … As we set up snacks and good viewing positions they begin … Brilliant bright white fireballs streaking from east to west, increasing as we draw towards the estimated peak at 3:30 am … We count as many as possible…it’s difficult due to the amount of meteors…Seven happen at the same time. By 2:00 a.m. we’re up to 700 and then it really picks up, pouring from the sky with no Amrent radiant … By 3:30 we have counted 1200…The shower continues but we are fatigued and start to break down for the night … A perhaps once in a lifetime event, we are all thrilled … A celestial triumph!’ -R. C. journal entry, 17-18 November 2001.

When Russell Crotty moves his eyeball to the lens of a 25 cm f/8 Newtonian reflector telescope and stares at the glowing light of another planet, he blushes. Peering into keyholes and snooping into uninvited bedrooms would cause less embarrassment. Stargazing is a true guilty pleasure. On that ladder alone up there’ he says, I actually feel creeped out. I feel like I’m looking at something I shouldn’t be looking at. That light, there’s something sacred about it. Its travelled so far. It’s amazing, like eavesdropping. Experiencing Saturn through the eyepiece, you can’t believe its real. It’s so perfect. Looking at a supernova remnant in Cygnus in the summer – it’s like a very faint veil of gas. I can’t put it into words, but I can attempt to draw it.

And draw he has done, in giddy excess. Crotty has spent the last several years producing enormous handmade books of planetary drawings, as well as drawings on paper glued to Lucite spheres that are suspended from the ceiling at eye level, varying in size from 40 to 155 centimetres in diameter, each one covered with constellations, planets, meteor showers and landscapes. The drawings themselves have an obsessively marked-up fetish finish. In their inert anti-orbit universe the globes, bald and minimal, float in galleries like big cerebral eyeballs. They don’t stare a viewer down so much as loom sheepishly in the room like cheerful science props, amused at what they represent. Crotty’s drawing style on the globes is scratchy, with thin vertical lines like the stubby hairs of earth, but that may have something to do with his love of the working-class drawing implement: the ballpoint pen. Its marks seem to fade in and out of clarity, rendering the appropriate light and dark surface. In some cases the entire body of the ‘landscape’ is layered with text, a kind of hellish estate agent babble – ‘Stunning beach front property, exclusive Spanish ridge-top estate contemporary, charming’ – on and on in semi-decipherable madman script, each word blurring into the next – the commercial sales patter of Earth’s enemy infecting the fibre of the soil. Irony hits the forehead when the art-buying investor, with his or her disposable income, writes out a cheque for above-mentioned artwork, and possesses globe.

Born: 1956
Educated: UC Irvine, MFA, SF Art Institute, BFA
Current Employment: Cal Arts, Visiting Artist (Course title: Extreme Nature)

BW: What’s your first memory of stargazing?

RC: My first childhood memory of stargazing would be in Mendocino, in northern California, sleeping outside in the summer time. It was incredible when it wasn’t foggy. This guy I knew borrowed a telescope from high school – this is when I was in sixth grade. Jupiter was rising, at the end of the town where I grew up, San Rafael, kind of rising up over the bay in the distance. I’ll never forget it. You could see the moons of Jupiter. From that point on I was absolutely hooked.

There is a great tradition of astronomers who have documented what they observed in the sky – who modestly refer to themselves as ‘mappers’, their drawings executed for purely scientific purposes, accompanied by rigorous notes and mathematical details. Nineteenth-century engravers and printers encountered great difficulties in reproducing the delicate nuances of these drawings because they were so lovingly shaded and detailed. Crotty cites two early European astronomers that mean a great deal to him: the Bavarian ‘amateur’ Johann Nepomuk Krieger, one of the first moon observers (considered an amateur because he knew nothing of mathematics), and the Dutch astronomer Antonie Pannekoek. Pannekoek, considered the greatest naked-eye observer of the galaxy, spent the majority of his life drawing the entire Milky Way in excruciating detail.

BW: Describe your progression from the things you first made when you got out of art school to what you’re doing now?

RC: When I got out of art school in 1980, I was doing these little surf books. At the same time I was really influenced by the LA Process people of the 1970s, so I was pouring resin out, peeling up roplex, poking holes in things, layering paint, that kind of stuff. The problem was there was no connection between myself and the work. Meanwhile I was doing these little surf books with stories to escape from everything, with these fictitious characters and places up north. I’ve never gotten used to southern California; even to this day I’m still a little uneasy down here. There was a show at LACE that Jan Tumlir and Kevin Sullivan did in 1990 called ‘Frontier Tales’. Kevin and I were surfing together. He saw all these books I was doing, knew the progression of these things, and finally said, ‘You got to show those books’. I was totally mortified. At that point I was totally over painting, just couldn’t go any further with pouring resin and sticking surf tins on canvas, throwing kitty litter on paintings.

Eventually I realized that these books are the real thing. That’s what I like to do. So I started taking sequences out of the books, little stick figures riding waves, kind of formalizing them in grids, using some of the knowledge I gained over the years from Formalism and Minimalism, structures and systems, and used that as a net to catch all the stuff, gestural drawings. After that I did a couple of big giant surf drawings – oh, and keeping it simple by just using ballpoint pen, an utter contrast to what I was doing before. I found that this worked for me, but it took me ten years to find this out. I’ve always been a little slow on the uptake. Then I started doing oil derricks, satellite dishes, the things you see when you drive up and down the coast, and sort of cataloguing those in a way, doing these huge pieces in tiny grids … thousands of doodles in these little squares. When we moved from Union, downtown – we moved out to Malibu because we got evicted, to caretake this place – that’s when I started seeing the sky again. I hadn’t paid attention to it for 20 years. I thought, ‘Wow, this would be an interesting thing to try to do.’ I was over with doing these grid things and the surf stuff. I mean I still do those surf books for my own amusement, but they’re more personal. They’re something I do once in a while when I get excited about something. I still surf a lot, but only in the winter. The summer is way too crowded.

Dutiful, Gothic, sublime, Crotty’s devotional pictures pay their respects to the awe of infinite space. There is a sweet fear of what is implied beyond the borders of the ominous image – a humble, modest tendency to be curious and blissful, a natural effect of researching the so-called heavens. Crotty’s drawings have the purity of study and research (he has actually sold his Saturn drawings to NASA). With an absence of figure to clutter an image we can go further over the edge into untethered subjectivity, allowing us to get lost in the space, a privilege we greedily accept. That would be terror and grandeur, and of course we say ‘yum-yum’ to that, ‘give me another helping of that sublime stuff’. Crotty’s work takes us to an exquisite spot for contemplation, puts planets and stars and comets in our heads, and turns over such complex phenomena – nature flickering inside us and pounding away on the outside. He is our telescope, once removed.

BW: What’s the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers?

RC: It’s this organization that’s been around for 50 years. Amateurs studying the planets, keeping records that professionals can’t keep because they don’t have the time to do repetitive observations of the planets. They have a training programme I took and I passed that and they gave me a certificate for observing Saturn. I’d send them drawings and calculations and they finally passed me, even though the math aspect wasn’t so great, but they liked the drawings. That was my brush with those guys. I haven’t renewed my membership in four years. I was a member of a bunch of different astronomy clubs, but I’m not a club person. I’d go to three or four meetings and then just sort of bail out. Astronomy is a lot like surfing. It’s a solitary pursuit, or something to do with a few friends. I have this observatory I built here on the property, I just sort of do it here, and then go to the mountains for real dark skies with different telescopes. I have four telescopes now.
BW: How did you build your own telescope?

RC: I never actually built one. That’s a misnomer that got printed somewhere. I built the observatory. I pieced together the scope. There’s this guy in the valley that makes them in his garage and he made the tube and everything. I bought the mount he used. I sunk a concrete pier and did that kind of thing. I’ve never had the math aptitude to grind a mirror and measure it and all that kind of stuff. Very technical.

Telescope boy with a stiff neck. Mindful, reverent, reclusive. In the best possible sense, a little outside the LA loop: not a hipster. Far from connected. In fact, adamantly disconnected from any specific scene, school or artworld mode. (Maybe you could say Vija Celmins’ drawings set a precedent, but their practices have little in common.) These days, enclosed in a roofless box of corrugated metal, Observer Crotty sits in his Malibu bunker staring up into space, his attention fixed on the infinite. When it’s dark out, he steps outside and looks up. Always looking up. The moon is there, big as a butt cheek, glowing wildly.