VITAMIN D, Phaidon Press
pp. 66 – 67
May 25th, 2006
By MARTIN HERBERT
If it is a clear night in Malibu, California, then Russell Crotty is probably sitting in his homemade observatory, pointing his twenty-five-centimeter f/8 Newtonian reflector telescope at an event millions of light years away. If it is daytime, he is most likely in the studio, applying an India-ink-filled nib to the surface of a Lucite globe or to the pages of one of his immense books, seeking to inscribe what he saw up there. It is not easy straddling the worlds of art and amateur astronomy, but Crotty has been vindicated in bath fields: Possibly uniquely, he has had bath major museum shows and his work authenticated by the Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers.
Trained as an artist (an awkward fact to grasp for those who have tried to locate him in a tradition of American oddball naïfs), in the 1980s, Crotty was, by his own account, a cookie-cutter West Coast finish-fetish artist-“pouring resin and sticking surf fins on canvas” -until an artist friend pointed out that his homemade books of drawings featuring surfing imagery, stemming from a favorite pastime, outclassed his official artwork. Freed up, Crotty subsequently perfected a legitimate surf-based art (tiny, gridded studies of wave riders that nodded equally to classic Minimalism, quotidian pleas- ure, and the individualist mythology of the West) before moving to Malibu to become caretaker of a 130-acre estate in the early 1990s. There, by chance, he recornected with a childhood hobby: stargazing. The works Crotty has made since fuse a private obsession with something that is public property: the cosmic sublime.
These works began as lavishly detailed hobbyist books memorializing his observations of celestial bod- ies-a process that, as Crotty is aware, has roots in the approaches of nineteenth-century sky watchers like Edward Emerson Barnard. In form (some of the books are
up to eight feet across), he was inspired by seeing epic antique volumes in the British Museum. After expanding these works into discrete “POV” (point-of-view) drawings, in which his interstellar imagery was vignetted as if seen through a telescope, Crotty began to draw on paper- covered spheres. The expaflsion of media suggests an ongoing attempt to set closer to the intimate experience of hands-on astronomy-an effect that is doubled by Crotty’s tendency to border his images with streams of diaristic text, a loquacious babble of observations on light pollution, wind speeds, and heavenly events into which the earthly world (particularly the effects of cree- pins suburbia on the naturallandscape) often intrudes, giving the work an ecological tinge.
Throughout, and although there are continuing reverbs of rninimalist practice (particularly in its focus on soothing repetition) Crotty’s work remains a one-off- a self-assuaging stab at lassoing the unknown through thousands of tiny, scratchy ink marks that coalesce into images that are bath realistic and, finally, unfathomable, semaphoring the artist’s own pleasure in sending his eye out into space. Crotty has lately considered making art out of the scrambles around the locallandscape that he makes on cloudy nights. He may have mastered the art of straddling author and physicist C.P. Snow’s famous “two cultures”-and contributed, in a way, to their merging- but for Crotty, the sky is clearly not the limit.