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The New York Sun

Arts and Letters
June 8th, 2006

Gazing at the Heavens in Africa & America

By DAVID GROSZ

In the 1980 film “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a new technology is introduced to the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in the form of a Coke bottle tossed from the window of a passing airplane. Unsure what to make of the strange glass object, the tribesmen interpret it as a gift from the heavens.

A generation later, the artist Marco Boggio Sella has provoked a similar sense of spiritual unrest by telling a different African population that the heavens are very different than local mythology predicts. But whereas the film’s invasive Coke bottle produces only lighthearted (albeit politically incorrect) comedy, Mr. Boggio Sella’s intervention spurred a creative outpouring whose results are visually spectacular, intellectually provocative, and also open to criticism from both the left and right.

In the summer of 2005 and the winter of 2005-06, the artist traveled to remote regions of Burkina Faso with an astronaut suit, astronomy textbooks, and images of Neil Armstrong’s famous 1969 moonwalk. After informing the often incredulous locals about space travel, he proceeded to commission and create a series of works based on their responses that together constitute the eccentric exhibition “Dreams and Nightmares of the African Astronauts.”

Mr. Boggio Sella has filled the walls of John Connelly Presents with a densely arranged, dazzling display of art objects more typical of a crafts market than a Chelsea gallery. Here are colorful batiks, bogolans, and sculptures made by Burkinabe artisans that combine traditional iconography with images of rocket ships and men in space suits; paintings made by the artist in his Brooklyn studio that are hard to distinguish from the commissioned pieces; vitrines housing installations of shamanic objects such as bird claws, shells, and cube-shaped crystalline stones; and three videos titled “Dreams and Nightmares of the African Astronauts” (2006) that constitute the somewhat confused conceptual core of the show.

Mr. Boggio Sella’s project examines the intersection of tribal mythology and the West’s faith in the technological future. The moon, a potent mythic symbol and the setting for mankind’s greatest technological achievement, is fundamental to both systems of belief. The exhibition also explores the “primitivism” of the avant-garde, an impulse that has seen advanced artists throughout the 20th century borrow from the formal language of premodern cultures to reinvigorate Western art.

The longest of Mr. Boggio Sella’s videos presents more than 2 1/2 hours of interviews with several Burkinabes. Skeptical of the affirmation that men have been to the moon, many respond with their own ideas about the heavens. Depending on how you view it, the movie either offers a relativistic perspective on belief systems or belittles the interviewees for their lack of sophistication.

For this reason, as well as the complicated creative and financial exchange surrounding the commissioned works, some critics have labeled Mr. Boggio Sella’s project exploitative of and condescending toward his Burkinabe collaborators. But the show also presents a powerful critique of global inequalities, consumer society, and, more damningly, the West’s complacent ignorance of Africa.

A second film, this one 52 minutes long, presents the most literal depiction of the enigmatic concept of the African “astronaut.” The artist dresses a young Burkinabe man in an astronaut suit and has him parade through the countryside. The movie opens in a parched desert of red rock, follows the young man as he walks along a dusty road, and culminates in a village of mud brick houses. Along the way, the astronaut’s adventures are quotidian experiences of Burkinabe life. He interacts with friends, rides lazily on a donkey cart, and, removing his helmet, indulges in a cigarette break.

The absurdity of the astronaut suit highlights the fact that much of the young man’s everyday life will appear alien to the film’s Western audience. The dry red stone of the Burkinabe desert, which resembles the setting of countless science-fiction films, is in some ways a more recognizable backdrop than the young man’s rustic village.Though it is hardly a call to arms, Mr. Boggio Sella’s offbeat exhibition does get at the alarming truth that, to many Westerners, Africa seems more remote than the moon.

***

Russell Crotty’s masterful art book “Field Charts for Nocturnal Recreations” (2006) opens with a stunning vision of the night sky. Meticulously detailed, rendered entirely in black ink from a ballpoint pen, and measuring approximately 10 feet by 6 1/2 feet, this single drawing reportedly took 17 weeks to complete.

The book as a whole – which, together with its collapsible display table/carrying case, constitutes an imposing sculptural object – is even more impressive. On subsequent pages, the artist focuses telescopically on star clusters and galaxies. His journey through the universe is intuitive, rather than systematic, and the book reads like the improvised notes of an amateur astronomer who still gazes at the stars with childlike enthusiasm. This magnificent artwork is likely to inspire a similar sense of wide-eyed wonder in its viewer.

Mr. Crotty’s six other single-edition art books on display at CRG Gallery vary in size, but they all share the basic structure of “Field Charts for Nocturnal Recreations”: Each combines black ballpoint-pen drawings with text written in a juvenile script made up entirely of capital letters. The artist has a deft feel for his technique and is able to create a variety of tones by changing the density of his pen strokes and the intensity with which each is inscribed. He also adds soft watercolor tones to some images.

If the night sky brings out the awestruck stargazer in Mr. Crotty, the other main subject of his books, the Californian landscape, elicits something of the jaded tour guide. “A California Diatribe” (2006) illustrates a series of terrains from different regions of the state – green rolling hills represent the central valley, a flatter sandy plateau the eastern plains. Within each drawing, densely packed lines of text rise and fall with the topography. Together, they form the diatribe of the work’s title, a sarcastic rant lamenting the effects of real estate developments and material culture on California’s natural beauty.

Elsewhere, Mr. Crotty depicts his social criticism graphically. In “Twilight in the West” (2006), the angular geometries of rooftops or the upward jut of television antennae interrupt the gentle roll of the hilly horizon line. These man-made items become vertical extrusions within the contour of the landscape, yet unlike the pine trees and boulders that also extend above the horizon, they read as unnatural, unwelcome invaders of a peaceful scene.

While it is possible to be turned off by the conspicuous obsessiveness of Mr. Crotty’s ink marks and the adolescent sensibility of some of his texts, the amateurish, emotional quality of his books is central to their meaning. The artist has deliberately fashioned a Peter Pan-like persona that challenges us not simply to reacquire forgotten childhood wisdom, but to do so by creatively engaging the world around us.

The power of Mr. Crotty’s books lies in the diarylike depiction of one man’s passionate interaction with his environment. By conveying his idiosyncratic relationship to starry nights and Californian sunsets, these books teach a universal lesson about every individual’s capacity to define and create the marvelous.

Sella until June 17 (625 W. 27th Street, between Eleventh Avenue and the West Side Highway). Prices: $2,000-$20,000. Crotty until June 17 (535 W. 22nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-229-2766). Prices: $18,000-$45,000.