Art Review
February 16th, 2001

Russell Crotty’s painstaking drawings turn science into art.

Amateur’s Love of Astronomy Shines Through Sky-Scapes



While Russell Crotty is more than respectably accredited as an artist—he has an MFA, gallery representation, teaching credits and so on— the truly resonant quality of his work is its spirit of amateurism. The term “amateur” is often used today to imply second-rate status, but in its traditional sense, or perhaps in a more romantic sense, it means a person who engages in a chosen pursuit for pleasure rather than as a profession. This amateur is driven by a pure form of fascination, a passion that is undiluted by vocational banalities. The amateur’s claim to his or her pursuit is, as a result, loyal, humble, enthusiastic and patient. 

Crotty is an amateur astronomer. His work is composed of painstakingly precise ink renderings of space-scapes perceived through a telescope in his self-built Malibu observatory. These drawings take a variety of shapes and sizes: Some are made on large, single sheets of paper; some are bound in elegant, handmade books; and others are shaped into hollow globes of various sizes. Examples of all three are on display as part of “The Universe,” Pasadena’s city-wide celebration of art and science. Crotty’s piece of this multi-venue event is “The Universe From My Backyard,” at the Williamson Gallery at Art Center College of Design. 

Crotty is certainly a man of science, although you might find it a quaint sort of science next to the high-tech efforts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech. Crotty relies on direct observation and manual—that is, unmechanized and undigitized-recording of nature. He is a certified documentarian of the Assn. of Lunar and Planetary Observers, an organization of amateur astronomers who assist professionals. As such, he has trained his eye to conform to a rigorous diagrammatic protocol, and his work demonstrates a sublime patience and a tireless faith in detail. That said, the work is not cold or mechanical but engrossingly vibrant. Each image is composed of thousands of thin, short strokes of black ink, which make for a delicate, even sensuous surface quality, despite the seemingly inexpressive nature of the medium (ballpoint pen). This exhausting technique lends a lush texture to the blackness of Crotty’s skies and a complexity to their vastness. Some of the compositions are recognizable as images of outer space, while others are more abstract and might be easily mistaken for Minimalist experimentation. None of the works, however, looks like a NASA photograph; inscribed by a human hand, they are imbued with a very personal quality of awe.

Of Crotty’s three formats, the single drawings-dark, circular sky-scapes about four feet in diameter centered on un-framed sheets of white paper—are the least engaging. They are an awkward size—too large to feel spontaneous, too small to be entirely impressive—and they are generally subsumed by the white walls of the gallery. The two-dimensional white square of paper proves to be a dull medium for the expression of cosmic mystery. It conveys Crotty’s pictorial intentions but does little to enhance them. In the books and the globes, however, Crotty combines the lush texture of his drawing with an especially intriguing set of spatial structures, translating vastness into intimacy and vice versa. 

The books, though Modernist in their sharp lines and spare design, are reminiscent of medieval manuscripts in their bulk and their metaphysical implications. They are large, unwieldy, and they demand reverential handling. Their size complements the majesty of their subject matter and places the viewer-reader in an appropriately humble relation to the cosmos. At the same time, however, they are presented as the sketchbooks of an artist and scientist, which suggests a certain intimacy. The interplay of scale between cosmic breadth and the comparatively minute gestures of human observation is both confusing and exhilarating.

Crotty’s globes only amplify this spatial confusion. In these works, the familiar, archetypal dome of the universe is inverted-turned inside out-and presented to the viewer as an Earth-like sphere. It is difficult to wrap the mind around the spatial connotations of such an inversion; especially in this installation, where there are eight of these globes suspended in a room like a large-scale model of our own universe. The globes are beautifully wrought: delicate and lightweight, varying slightly in breadth, from about 3 to 4 feet in diameter, all hung at about the same level but in an artfully asymmetrical pattern. They imply enclosure and limitlessness simultaneously. 

With its patient craftsmanship and ardent attention to detail, Crotty’s conscientious fusing of art and science brings honor to both disciplines. Walking through his maze of cosmic spheres, it is difficult not to feel infected by his eager fascination. 

“Russell Crotty: The Universe From My Backyard,” Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design, through April 22.