A Worlds View

The first thing you should know about Russell Crotty is that he lives in California, in the hills above Malibu. The second thing you should know is that he has his own small observatory in those hills, housing a ten-inch, f/8 Newtonian reflector telescope (I have no idea what that means, but it looks pretty impressive). The third thing that you should know is that Russell Crotty really likes to draw. I mean, he really likes to draw.

These little tidbits may help you begin to appreciate the ink drawings -- on globes and in books -- on view downstairs in the Perspectives Gallery of the Contemporary Arts Museum. Crotty has the globes specially made -- they are vacuformed Lucite covered with thin strips of Japanese paper -- and he draws directly upon them. Three of the books are approximately four feet by four feet closed, almost eight feet open, as they are here (three other books are of a more manageable size). The books and globes are, in part, records of his ocular astronomical wanderings, but if they were only that, they would be of limited interest at a time when amazing images from the Hubble telescope find their way into the pages of our news magazines -- and in color. These drawings are much more.

Russell Crotty was born in San Rafael, California, in 1956. The son of artists (his father was a sculptor, his mother a ceramist and jeweler), he never questioned what he was going to do in life. He took a BFA with honors at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1978, and an MFA from the University of California, Irvine (where he suffered severe culture shock when he couldn't even get an espresso). He returned to Northern California but headed south again four years later because "there was much more happening in L.A.," he says. "My friends were getting studios and shows." Somewhere around 1993, he moved to Malibu as caretaker for a 130-acre property that overlooks the Pacific.

Crotty's interest in astronomy began in his early teens, when his mother bought a telescope for him as a distraction from grief over his father's sudden death by heart attack. There's something fitting, almost poetic, to the notion of seeking relief from personal sorrow in contemplation of the immensity of the universe. But astronomy was forgotten during his years of artistic training and subsequently, until, at an impasse in his practice, he had a "Eureka!" moment when he stepped out onto his Malibu porch and looked up at the clear night sky.

The earliest work in this exhibit is one of the smaller books, Jupiter Strip Sketch Book (1996). It focuses on the turbulent atmosphere of our largest neighbor in the solar system, and is a record of Crotty's observations of the bands of intense storms that constitute the atmosphere of that planet. Here, his draftsmanship is looser and sketchier than it is in the more recent works, reinforcing the abstract qualities of his subject. As the pages are turned (more on that later), there are subtle changes in the configuration and shapes of the elements in the bands, these sketches becoming a record of the passage of time. In the Small Atlas of Lunar Drawings (1999), Crotty turns his attention to our closest neighbor, drawing the moon as a dominant element in a night landscape, through several of its monthly stages, and in close-up sketches of the moon's surface. Here again we're invited to contemplate the passage of time, both in terms of the lunar cycle as well as the eons of meteor bombardment, when ours was a more violent neighborhood, responsible for that pocked and cratered surface.

Crotty doesn't make these drawings at the telescope (he couldn't possibly with the larger books) nor does he work from photographs. He makes smaller sketches and copious notes, enlarging and expanding on these back in his studio; his practice involves both recording and imagining. In these larger drawings and globes, the images are worked up with short, tightly striated strokes -- I think of Cézanne -- to create a dark density that is still oddly luminous. These works have a weird radiance entirely appropriate to their subject.

There is wit and humor here, as well. Crotty's observations find their way into these books and onto the globes in what he refers to as "bad poetry." He also collects the names of housing developments and will string them together to make a kind of found "worse poetry," as in Extinction (large version) (2003), where they undulate around the southern hemisphere of the globe and form the "landscape" under the night sky. In The Leonid Meteor Shower (2002), Crotty's observations even crawl up into the sky as the outlines of trees. But including his observations in the books, in oversize, awkward block printing, has a serious side, too. Crotty is consciously paying homage to the pioneers of astronomy who sat at telescopes, freezing through the night, sketching what they saw through the eyepiece, attempting to push human knowledge out into the skies.

About turning the pages: Through the run of the show, on select Saturdays, someone is stationed in the Perspectives Gallery, entrusted with providing visitors a more comprehensive appreciation of Crotty's books (the larger ones may be problematic). The remaining two dates are September 13 and October 4, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. It's worth planning for.

When we look up into the night sky, we are looking back in time. Since the universe is expanding, rushing away from us, essentially we are looking into infinity. Faced with this enormity, we need the human. That's why Russell Crotty draws. Even the largest of these images convey the intimacy of this most personal of artistic practices. Not that he makes the universe intimate, for who could make infinity intimate? The intimacy comes in the communication to us of what he sees through his telescope's lens and his imagination. That intimacy opens up worlds.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Devine