Square Cylinder: Russell Crotty and Lick Observatory @ SJICA

by David M. Roth


Describing the shape and character of the universe is a mind-bending proposition even for those who claim to understand it.  Russell Crotty, an artist who’s as comfortable conversing with astrophysicists as he is creating work about dark energy and black holes, has, with help from two collaborating institutions, enhanced our appreciation of scientific inquiry with an exhibit called Look Back in Time: Russell Crotty and Lick Observatory.  It’s one of those rare instances when a merger of art and science produce more than just hollow gestures of interdisciplinary goodwill.

The exhibit has three parts.  One is an installation by Crotty based on a two-year residency in which he divided his time between Lick’s Mount Hamilton observatory, a research facility managed by the University of California, and the UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) campus, where he engaged with faculty astrophysicists.  The second is a mini retrospective of Crotty’s earlier (2000-08) works on paper.  A third portion, drawn from Lick’s Historical Collections Project, consists of photos, optical instruments, logbooks, furniture and memorabilia that take us back – literally – to what Crotty called “the golden age of astronomical drawing” (1880-1930).  The two sides of the show cross-pollinate at every turn, each brimming with unexpected aesthetic and conceptual conjunctions.

The idea for the project originated with John Weber, founding director of the Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS), a part of the Arts Division at UCSC; Tony Misch, a former Lick astronomer; and Cathy Kimball, the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art’s executive director and chief curator.  Together, on this project, they formed something of a curatorial dream team.  Weber was previously director of the Tang Museum at Skidmore College and before that, curator of education and public programs at SFMOMA for 11 years ending in 2004.  Misch trained as an artist — he earned an MFA in painting from Otis Art Institute — but upon graduating switched to astronomy.  His stunning video animation, made from still photos of the 1908 Comet Morehouse, is one of the show’s highlights, on view in the Cardinale Project Room. Since retiring in 2007, he’s taken up the job of cataloging Lick’s collection, which dates to 1888, the year the facility was founded as the world’s first mountaintop observatory.  (An interview with Misch appears below.)  Kimball’s history of presenting contrarian views of both art and science is a long one, well known to Bay Area audiences. Several years back, when the three organizers were discussing which artist to include in this show, Crotty’s name sprung immediately to mind: He was the only one they knew who worked from direct astronomical observation.
That distinction places Crotty in rarified company, if not among artists, then certainly among astronomers.  “One of the things I learned” during the residency, the artist says speaking from his studio in Ojai, is that professional astronomers “don’t look through telescopes visually anymore.  It’s all screens and data collection.  A lot of times it’s remote.  There’s a technician up on the mountaintop at the telescope and there’s a grad student in the basement at UC Santa Cruz” collecting and analyzing data. “This old idea of the astronomer in the tweed jacket with the cap on, sitting at the eyepiece freezing all night is not really true anymore.”  Thus, being able to direct Lick’s technicians to aim its telescopes at any point in the sky constituted a rare opportunity.  Crotty, a self-described “serious amateur,” called the experience “magical.”
“What they’re doing,” he explained “is adaptive optics.  It’s a laser system that shoots into the upper atmosphere and uses mirrors to correct for turbulence,” altering “the images before they go into CCD cameras or spectrographs.” The results, he says, “are almost as good as those taken from space.”
The artist traces his fascination with things cosmological to high school when he spotted Jupiter and its moons through a borrowed telescope.  Later, while earning BFA and MFA degrees at SFAI and UC Irvine, he put that interest on hold, but returned to it in 1992 while housesitting in the Santa Monica Mountains.  There, he built an observatory and “launched into serious astronomical work.”  His earliest drawings in this vein consisted of “tight grids” done with a ballpoint pen showing “multiples of Jupiter and Saturn.”  These were preceded by large-scale drawings about surfing, which he described as having “a lowbrow quality, emblematic of what Christopher Knight called the “pathetic aesthetic,” in vogue in the early 1990s among such artists as Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley and others. “It was,” says Crotty in reference to his oeuvre up until around 2008, “all about pushing drawing to extremes,” by which he means not just mark making, but also the limits of his own physical endurance. In the mid-2000s, a doctor advised him to find a new way to work, lest the severe case of tendonitis he’d developed become irreversible.

Examples of that obsession – which he’s since relinquished — greet visitors at the entrance to the SJICA in the form of two large, paper-covered fiberglass spheres on which he’s made intricate drawings depicting starry skies.  They hang at eye-level from the ceiling alongside framed 2-D works and a six-foot-long table upholding a bound “book” (Field Charts for Nocturnal Recreations, 2005) of similarly conceived drawings so large and weighty, two gallery assistants are required to flip the “pages.”  What distinguishes these works is that viewing them feels more akin to looking at tightly woven textiles than it does to stargazing.  Their silver-gray-black surface textures are impossibly dense, rivaling even those seen in Bruce Conner’s mandala drawings. The alternately luminous/dark tonality of the drawings, says the artist, corresponds to what astronomers call “seeing conditions.” By portraying them in the round, on planet-shaped objects, Crotty effectively situates viewers in space, which runs counter to our habit of looking up at the sky.  That, the artist told me, was not an attempt on his part to upend the normal order of things, only a byproduct of seeing the cosmos through the circular vignette of a telescope.  It’s an artistic masterstroke, and, quite possibly, a singular invention.

Lick’s portion of the show, assembled by Misch, is the ideal counterpoint to Crotty’s labor-intensive drawings; it shows how astronomers worked in the pre-digital era: observing, measuring and sketching by hand what they saw.  The centerpiece is a wall-mounted cabinet containing 132 file boxes filled with logbooks, 25 of which are open to view.  Each contains precisely recorded numerical calculations derived from spectrograms — photos of light coming off stars.  Recorded on 4 x 5-inch glass plates between 1896 and 1928, they resemble jagged, horizontal versions of Barnett Newman’s “zips.”  From these astronomers were able to glean knowledge not only about the existence of stars and their rotational patterns, but also their chemical makeup – a boggling notion when you consider the raw, inchoate quality of the negatives.
Such documents challenge the sensational, wiz-bang view of astronomy promoted by TV showmen like Neil deGrasse Tyson.  They “demonstrate,” says Misch, “that doing science is
made up of many slow, painstaking and often repetitive acts, but that in those acts — especially when seen in the aggregate — there lies a subtle beauty every bit as wondrous as the breathtaking pictures that usually illustrate astronomy.”
Mounting the exhibit at the SJICA, rather than in a science or history museum, he says, “allowed the objects’ quiet visual poetry to be better felt, with a minimum of didactic interference.  I also wanted visitors to experience the palpable connection to the human hand in the scientific process: the hand-written labels on well-worn file boxes and drawing styles of individuals, the inked notations on the photographic plates, the wear and tear of handling on the instruments.”
Of the many on view, the one that grabbed and held my attention longest was a telescope clock drive. The hand-cranked mechanism resembles, in a very rudimentary fashion, a pulley-and-weight driven grandfather clock. Its purpose was to keep celestial objects in focus as the Earth turned.  I tried envisioning the calculations needed to design such a device and came up short, math never being my strong suit.  Nevertheless, I remained awestruck by the simple elegance of it, the precision of its meshing gears, the carefully calibrated weight, and the fact that it actually worked.  I experienced similar feelings looking through a loupe at E.E. Barnard’s glass plate photos (1892-1895) of the Milky Way, noting how the chemistry contained in “microscopic grains of silver” as Misch called them, enabled me, more than century hence, to travel through space and time.  
These things also captivated Crotty during his mountaintop residency, when he poured over the archives with Misch.  But when it came to creating Look Back in Time, the work for which the entire project is named, it was the esoteric discussions being carried out among astronomers on the UCSC campus that led him to visualize the history of the cosmos as an installation.  The roadmap for that effort, says Crotty, came from astrophysicist Garth Illingworth. “He showed me a chart called The History of Everything that depicted the current universe all the way back to the Big Bang.  It kind of stuck in my head.”  Later, when Crotty’s wife, Laura Gruenther, who he credits with helping him design and build the exhibit, suggested he “do more than just wall pieces it all clicked: I decided to approach it three dimensionally.”
In this, the artist takes fantastic liberties, mixing elements of Pop, Abstract Expressionism, post-Minimalism and Funk to build a semi-transparent, walk-through environment whose comic character reflects the challenge of trying to make visual sense of 13 billion years of cosmic upheaval.  “There’s a lot we left out,” Crotty allows, “but the meat on the bones” – the development of universe as outlined by illingsworth — “is all there.”  The installation occupies about 675 square feet of space and consists of 16 semi-transparent, bioresin-covered pieces of fiber mesh suspended from the ceiling, each festooned with different elements: drawings, thread-like tendrils, gloopy masses, globular shapes and much else.  
Within and between the layers hang 26 sculptural objects. They call to mind the otherworldly forms of Lee Bontecou, the cubo-futurist paintings of Tom Holland (with whom Crotty studied at SFAI) and Karl Blossfeldt’s close-up photos of plants, which, as it happens, were taken at around the same time Lick’s earliest images were being recorded. You can also detect references to hard edge abstract painting in the multi-colored scrims Crotty uses to represent light and similarities to Yayoi Kusama’s “infinity nets” in the dots and circles he uses to depict our current galaxy.  Making these choices, says the artist, meant filtering what he learned from the scientists through his own sensibility and experience of art history.
“A lot of the astronomers,” he recalls, “were really interested in the earliest galaxies.  They were trying to figure out how these things were formed and what they looked like.  One astronomer described cigar shapes; another talked about blue blobs.  As an artist I thought, ‘You know, I can work with that.’”  He did so by hanging a series of ungainly blue-and-white shapes in front of the panel called The Cosmic Dark Ages.  As for the veiny skeins encased in gluey blue resin that appear on that same panel – “those came from computerized simulations I saw of the universe that have this web-like filamentary structure.”  And the multi-colored strips Crotty chose to depict light in the panel titled The Visible Spectrum?  Programmers, he reports, used those colors to highlight globular clusters displayed on a computer screen.
“My sense of wonder,” he says, “is in the realm of numbers and quantitative information. But as an artist, I’m approaching it like a postmodernist…with feeling.  You might not get the science” he concedes, “but you’ll walk away with an aesthetic experience.”