Studio Visit: Russell Crotty, The Penumbra of Existence

Photo credit Gary Brewer

Studio Visit: Russell Crotty, The Penumbra of Existence

Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travelers, maps of the celestial bodies – I shall do it for the moon, you Galileo, for Jupiter.” ~Letter from Kepler to Galileo, 1610
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science.” ~Albert Einstein

Written by Gary Brewer
Sometimes we make choices, other times choices are made for us through fate and destiny. Russell Crotty spent decades creating obsessive drawings, mapping the stars and heavens or creating books filled with notation-like marks that captured sequential moments of his experiences surfing waves. These works were based on personal need and obsession; they reflected his lifelong love of surfing and astronomy; using telescopes since his childhood to gaze at the stars.

It is through astronomical forces that the tides rise and fall, which then affects the waves as they reach the shore. This interplay of the gravitational influence of the moon on the sea is a physical manifestation of the profound interplay of forces beyond our atmosphere that shape life on earth.

Russell has a deep knowledge of astronomy and the history of scientific inquiry in this field. In 2015 he had a two-year residency at UC Santa Cruz and the Lick Observatory. Every couple of months he would go up for three or four days, spending time at the observatory and UC Santa Cruz, interacting with astrophysicists about his ideas and work.

Image courtesy of the artist

Decades of drawing obsessive works that would require endless hours of intensely making repetitive marks eventually injured Russell’s shoulder. After spending some time trying to find a way to accommodate his approach to drawing without re-injuring his shoulder, he was told by his doctor that the only way to heal his shoulder was to find another way to make his work.

It was during a day at the beach that Russell collected driftwood sticks to use as tools for drawing, giving him a better range of motion. He found a new tool and approach to mark making; and a way to create work that would not cause harm to his shoulder. He uses a long stick dipped in ink to make his drawings that are the armature for his new collage pieces. It also affected his approach to making his art. He said to me, “ For years I had been making works in a highly disciplined way. Everything was charted out and the way I realized my work was tight and controlled. My injury caused me to have to let go of that restraint to a degree. I am still very deliberate, and things are carefully planned out, but the realization of the work – the materials that I use – bio-resins, fiberglass and re-purposed plastics – all react and interact in ways I cannot fully control. It is a shift in both the limits of my physical body due to my shoulder, and also a philosophical shift that comes with age. To recognize that we cannot fully control our lives and the effects of what we do, that things happen in ways outside of our intentions.”

Eccentricity has always been a hallmark of his work and practice. His obsessive needs are not calculated art career strategies, but are based on the forces at play in his DNA and central nervous system. Russell was raised in Northern California. His father was the sculptor Harry Crotty, whose work can be seen at the Oakland Museum and other Bay Area venues. He worked in a mid century modernist style that related to artists such as Charles Howard and Adeline Kent. It was an optimistic art that reflected a moment in time in the 1950’s and 1960’s when artists and designers like Charles and Ray Eames, or architects like Neutra and Lautner were creating a style for a future filled with great promise, Russell’s childhood home was filled with works by Peter Volkous and other artists of the Bay Area from that time. They helped shape and form Russell’s aesthetic. These influences have come full circle, where he reevaluates these styles and views them through the lens of our current anthropocene era.

Russell’s new works have become a vector where his history is told through a complex interplay of disparate narratives. It is a reflection of art from the 1950’s, the optimism of that era and style that also became generalized into a form of Jetson’s kitsch. Indeed, the new work harkens back to his father’s drawings and sculptures, some of which he showed me in his studio. There are elements from his lifelong interest in astronomy and in the imagery of planets he is creating in the current works. He uses drawings done in a similar obsessive mark-making style as his earlier work, but creates them on a very small scale, that are then cut and collaged into the pieces. Russell is exploring the idea of exoplanets; hidden planets that might support life. The unknown features of these planets gives Russell the freedom to create his own version; a nod to the history of speculative science where things are defined using little physical evidence but enough knowledge to make an educated guess. All of these elements are combined in quirky drawings that have a distinctive mid-century look. After everything is arranged and laid out, Russell then puts re-purposed plastic from products that he buys – containers for food, batteries, hardware, etc.– which are placed on top of certain areas of the composition. After all is ready, he lays a sheet of fiberglass over the design, then using bio-resin and pigments, he coats and paints the resin and colors over the piece. The final works are both object and image, painting and collage. The plastic elements give the works a warped funky aesthetic, they have humor and pathos and function on several levels simultaneously. The process of fiber-glassing the works and pouring and brushing on the pigment has a life of its own. The fiberglass warps and buckles at its own pleasure. – Russell can never be sure how the final form will unfold. The unexpected surprise element is a creative gift that refreshes his eye, mind and spirit. “These surprises are inspiring, it gives me new ideas to explore, and adds an element of life to the work.”

Photo credit Gary Brewer

He said of these current works, “I am interested in reevaluating kitsch – of looking at things that in the past I would have disregarded. I approach my work as both a post-modernist and a humanist. I love looking at science fiction book covers from the 1960’s and find a relevance to our time. The plastic elements in my new works are not meant to be about recycling or the environment, but about this moment we live in, where our behavior is warping the world, distorting truth and beauty. We live in an anthropocene era, but we have the ability to harness the energy of the sun and to turn this around. We are on the verge of space travel to colonize and make habitable, distant planets. I search the web and read the pessimistic opinions of people who have surrendered to a nihilistic worldview. Whose belief is that our story has come to an end, and we can do nothing to alter the course we are on. They call anyone, like myself, who believes that we can change and survive this moment, “hopiumists”. I also read the ideas from scientists working at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence); they describe our current state as being a Type 0 Era – an era when we have the potential to change; to harness the energy of the sun and create biodegradable products that lessen our footprint on the earth. The hope is that we can become a Type One Era, creating a world where our impact has become neutralized. I am an optimist and believe that we have this potential. It is a frightening and an exciting time to be alive.”

These works touch upon both the hope and despair of our time and are channeled through the moment before the fall, the high point of America, when our power, wealth and creativity seemed to harkens a golden era. A little more than a half-century later, we face the unimagined consequences of these swift changes; we are experiencing the myth of the monkey’s paw; the unintended consequences of dreams fulfilled.

Dreamers created language and told stories to make a subjective cohesion between groups of people. We can date the most distant artist whose marks were an intentional effort to create a pattern to the Blombos Cave in South Africa, seventy thousand years ago. Artists today, with each mark they make, are connecting back through the millennia, to these primordial expressions.

There is a strange logic to our lives. In these new works, Russell Crotty is weaving personal and pan-personal elements together, creating connections to different planes of reality. These works are connected to our ancient ancestors who first made marks to create a language, to communicate an idea and define and imagine our identity, our tribe, and our place under the vastness of the starry mantle.

He also brings us through an arc of time, back to his origins; the reference to the work of his father is a connection to his youth and the world that he grew up in. It is also an extension of his creative DNA, channeling the aesthetic sensibility of his father and of a cultural moment and reflecting it back and forth through the darkness and light of history; the penumbra of existence in all of its beauty and terror.

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