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Russell Crotty: Globe Drawings
April 11–May 25, 2003
 

Had he lived into the 21st century, French philosopher Michel Foucault would have seen his admonition regarding state surveillance jarringly legitimated and iterated. We are monitored, listened to, photographed, and filmed in places as innocuous as the grocery store and as polemical as the courthouse. Traffic intersections, buildings, civic sites, and work places have become jurisdictions of observation and record-keeping rather than simply the routes and routines of everyday life. Privacy has become an almost quaint construct from our past. Our loss of privacy and the widespread use of technological tools to scrutinize and record our activities contrast sharply with the apparent guilelessness of stargazing through a homemade telescope. Russell Crotty’s celestial drawings of nocturnal skies over Malibu, California, are a separate dominion, a place removed from the social and cultural anxiety produced by the state’s observation of the body politic.

Russell Crotty lives on 130 acres of Santa Monica Mountain coastal chaparral, where he built the Solstice Peak Observatory. From this observatory he studies the nighttime skies with a ten-inch f/8 Newtonian reflector telescope, taking extensive notes and making sketches of planets, constellations, and stars. He later makes final drawings in his studio, where memory collides with empirical observation. Time and memory, unstable and unfixed ideas, bracket these celestial drawings of galaxies, planets, and stars which have already burned out by the time Crotty sees them. For the casual stargazer, tens of thousands of years for the light of a star to reach us is a beautifully abstract thought. Ethereal memory of the stars is all we can possibly see, so much time has passed, which is underscored by Crotty’s own memory drawings. Crotty understands the deep ambiguities embedded in of the act of observation, even of things as remote as the planets and burned out stars. He notes, “On that ladder alone up there I actually feel creeped out. I feel like I’m looking at something I shouldn’t be looking at. That light, there’s something sacred about it. It’s traveled so far. It’s amazing, like eavesdropping.” (1) Crotty’s (and our) observation of matter that may have already died but that looks completely viable and alive is wondrous, uncanny, and a bit melancholy.

Crotty’s constellation drawings are not dissimilar to landscapes or seascapes. He works with imagery that he experiences. It just so happens that his view and experience is of things we cannot touch or feel, but rather only see, and often only see by the aid of a powerful instrument. Crotty, whose love of and talent for celestial observation once gained him a prestigious project with NASA, became hooked at age 12 when he saw Jupiter through a telescope. (2) He drifted away from astronomy, as adults often do in favor of other pursuits, but eventually returned in 1992, finding his childhood avocation to be perfect as his adult vocation. He has lived in the Santa Monica Mountains for 11 years, one full orbit of Jupiter around the Sun and back into Leo—a perfect way for an astronomer-artist to mark time.

Stars contain colors that change as the stars evolve. Most stars are “main sequence” stars whose colors sweep the spectrum, ranging from hot and bright stars to cool and faint stars. Other star groupings are called red giants, yellow and red supergiants, and white dwarfs. Even the language coined to describe them is inherently vivid. Crotty, who didn’t use color in his work for 11 years, finally began to add color to his most recent drawings. He worked with color in several of the new 2003 works in this exhibition, including Summer Triangle Over Chumash Wilderness, Star Chain in Monoceros, and Mars Near Perihelion. M11 Galactic Cluster in Scutum (2002) is a drawing of “one of the richest and most compact of the galactic (open) clusters,” with an estimated 2,900 stars. At 220 million years old, M11 contains many yellow and red giants. (3) Crotty’s subtle yellow watercolor, scattered throughout the drawing, may indicate those yellow giants.

Crotty’s globe drawings suggest the beautifully rendered antique drawings by historical astronomers rather than the accurate, less romantic photographic images that global surveyors, telescopes, and reflectors make in contemporary observatories. That Crotty painstakingly and even lovingly draws his nocturnal skies reminds us that what we know used to be based on what we could see and calculate about the world around us, not what satellites have recorded. Crotty’s globe drawings remind us that seeing and processing that data through a subjective human mind inflames and exhilarates a humanized view of ourselves. His process ameliorates the dehumanizing effects of the surveillance equipment that we direct on ourselves and on our personal and global environment. That Crotty adds poetic text about what he sees to some of his works further extends their subjectivity and his deeply personal attachment to and wonder for what he sees.

Perihelion is the point nearest the sun in the orbit of a planet or other celestial body. In his Solstice Peak Observatory, Russell Crotty maintains his own personal perihelion. He redefines acute scrutiny and eavesdropping—acts that may foster social anxiety and cultural repression—as arbiters of beauty and wonder. His globe drawings fixate our gaze upward and outside of ourselves and off of each other to the shapes of things we can’t touch, and to a sense of time we can’t always properly conceive.

Dana Self
Curator


Notes

1. Russell Crotty quoted in Eileen Myles, “A Thousand Words: Russell Crotty Talks About His Atlases,” Artforum (September 2001): pp. 180–81.

2. Crotty’s Mars project with NASA entitled him to use the 60-inch reflector in the observatory on Mount Wilson, Pasadena, CA.

3. See www.seds.org/messier.

Special thanks to Russell Crotty and CRG Gallery, New York, NY; to Kristy Peterson, Kemper Museum education coordinator; and to the UMKC Physics Department and Dr. Keith Ashman, Assistant Professor of Physics, for their assistance with Russell Crotty’s stargazing workshop.