At the March 4 opening for the exhibit Russell Crotty -- Globe Drawings, the artist gave a talk about his work with hardly any mention of contemporary culture, theory, or politics. Instead, Crotty spoke about the ocean, astronomy, and bouldering. Surprise: The observation of nature, in the form of landscape drawings, has appeared in the Miami Art Museum.
MAM tends to showcase works that emphasize conceptual, historical, and political concerns. This exhibit has none of the above. Furthermore, the museum has commissioned Crotty to create a sphere -- akin to those now on display -- based on Everglades National Park. When introducing Crotty and his show last week, curator Lorie Mertes described her trips to the Everglades with him, and how her discomfort with the environment transformed into appreciation as she worked with him.
Such is the power of observation coupled with a skilled hand, and of probity and imagination brought together. To see MAM appreciate this kind of heartfelt draughtsmanship is rare and welcome.
During his presentation, Crotty showed an image of an early '90s work that at first glance looked like a minimalist wall drawing. Upon closer inspection, it was revealed to be a grid of forty thousand tiny pictures of waves. He showed how he draws from life, meticulously rendering heavenly phenomena while looking through a telescope, filling eight-foot-high books with astronomical studies, star maps, and written notes.
These works gave rise to those hanging from the ceiling of the New Works space at MAM. Hollow acrylic spheres have been covered with several layers of Japanese paper; their subject is the night landscape and the heavens above them. Drawn with countless lines from an archival ball-point pen, they record the sky and earth as experienced by Crotty from his home, a property overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Intense observation permeates the work. One might call it compulsive, except that the artist is a veteran surfer who is used to repetition, concentration, and prolonged attention to nature.
The spheres are distillations of all of this looking and noting. In one recently executed piece, Meteor Shower (2004), comets shoot through a pale, blue-gray sky. Wild desert trees grow out of a rocky landscape. In stick-like capital letters, Crotty writes his field notes all over the earth: THE RADIENT [sic] RISES MAGNIFICENT OVER THE HORIZON -- EARTH MOVES INTO THE COMET DUST FROM MIDNIGHT TO 3:30 AM -- TONIGHT LEAVES US FEELING WE HAD A ONCE IN A LIFETIME EVENT.
Washes of yellow over the black ballpoint lines produce a somber green that captures the hue of the landscape at night. The paper covering the sphere has been applied in longitudinal strips; their seams, running from one pole to another, recall map lines, and by extension, enormous (perhaps even infinite) territory.
A similar large work from 2002, a 46-inch sphere entitled Cygnus Dives into the Badlands, has a spiky, dark orange landscape with a luminous horizon that stretches upwards on one side to cover the pole. The writing on this piece reveals that Crotty's observations are not all romantic: BROKEN BEER BOTTLES -- SAND -- THE EVER PRESENT SPENT CARTRAGES [sic] FROM HAYSEED HOLIDAYS OF THE OFFROAD GUN FANATICS THAT HANG AROUND HERE -- BUT FOR NOW ALL IS QUIET ...
The smaller globes have no writing but are worked with even greater intensity. M52 in Casiopeia depicts a gentle cluster of stars, each of which has been washed pink or blue with scientific care. With nine spheres hanging at head level, MAM's New Works room takes on cosmic dimensions. Some spheres seem to be satellites of others, and thanks to Crotty's prodigious labors, viewers can walk as giants among them.