In the early 90s, the gridded ball-point-pen drawings that Russell Crotty filled with frenetic shorthand images of surfers, seemed to align him with the separate, but not unrelated, schools of bad-boy art and patheticism then on the rise. His daydreaming doodles evoked wasteful hours at school while the mind roamed elsewhere, and the ball-point was the perfect signifier of the abject and artless. It didn't hurt that his drawings sometimes looked like defaced Agnes Martins in which the clarity and coolness of the Modernist grid was corrupted by outpourings of low-brow gestures. Trends come and go, however, and as Crotty has continued to toil on with dime-store pens on paper, his work bears less and less relation to the people with whom he has been compared: Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Sean Landers.
In form and method, the work has changed little, for Crotty has doggedly pursued thematic imagery ranging from the coastal (waves, battleships, beach shacks) to the aerial (smokestacks, satellite dishes) and the celestial moons, planets and galaxies. The shift in subject matter over the last few years from potentially flaky images of surf culture to a universal and timeless fascination with the sky has doubtless contributed to Crotty's disassociation with the aforementioned artists, as has the quasi-scholarly presentation of astronomical findings. In his latest show, 'Hiding out at Solstice Peak', the gallery feels almost like an astronomical museum: its walls are lined with judicious groupings of drawings, and two large books spread out on tables in the centre of the room. In each work, celestial bodies are displayed within dark, circular fields, purposefully hatched with short, choppy strokes of blue-black ink, and placed on sheets of clean, white paper. The round images approximate a view through the lens of a telescope, centred on alternately sparkling, gaseous and solid objects floating in deep, dark space. Most of the images are derived from nocturnal star-gazing sessions that the artist conducts at his 'Solstice Peak Observatory' on a hill above the Malibu coastline, where he sketches his findings on standard astronomical note pages. Later, he chooses the most compelling images to enlarge and display as artworks.
One of these, M32 The Great Galaxy in Andromeda (1998) has been transferred to a huge six-foot-square sheet of paper so that one is directly confronted with a yawning portal onto another realm, the bright, creamy ellipse of a faraway galaxy at its centre serving as a beacon in the boundless darkness. Another drawing of the same dimensions, Hale-Bopp After Perihelion (1997), is more earthbound, presenting a craggy nocturnal profile of a desert landscape, the starry sky above streaked by the flash of the famous comet. The terrestrial rock formations in this work are filled with text taken from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, which tells a romantic tale of heroic soul-searching amongst the heavens. Poetic texts, both by Crotty and others, have intermittently appeared in his drawings over the years, and underline his truly personal, far from ironic attachment to his subject matter. Like fellow artist-scribe Raymond Pettibon, one senses that Crotty makes these works as much for himself as for the public, perhaps even favouring intimate, private settings above the sterile sameness of the art institution.
This inclination is most evident in Crotty's large-scale books filled with similarly celestial images and textual notations. Criticised by some for their problems of presentation gallery attendants must assist viewers in turning the cumbersome, over-sized pages the books' resistance to public display is a clue to their preferred viewing context: they may best be imagined in the libraries or drawing rooms of collectors who can slowly and methodically show off their treasured acquisitions or pore over the intricacies of craftsmanship. In both the crusty, introspective, and un-stylish subject matter of his volumes and their demanding physical requirements (the books are also considerably more expensive than wall-mounted works) Crotty seems to want to turn away from the quick read, the instant social gratification of a flashy, signature painting over the sofa, or the snazzy contemporaneity of a video projection. Instead, the proper presentation and storage of his work poses a challenge to the dedication of collectors and institutions and turns viewers momentarily away from the glitz and buzz of the street, allowing them to gaze into the silent sky where an immeasurable store of visual, scientific and humanistic material awaits contemplation. Ultimately, Crotty's project comes across less as a conservative reaction to current trends and more as a thoughtful and personal reorientation of art to the issues it best engages with: opticality, intellectual curiosity and the vagaries of tradition.