From the surf to the stars

The kinship of beach culture and astronomy? It all adds up when you gaze at Russell Crotty's doodlings. By John O'Reilly

What was Kant thinking about when he wrote "Bold, overhanging and, as it were, threatening rocks ... the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force ... we readily call these objects sublime"? After talking to Californian artist Russell Crotty, it is unusually obvious - surfing. Crotty's work is strangely figurative, oddly abstract and, above all else, autobiographical. The exhibition currently at the Cabinet Gallery has a selection of his surf journals and his Deep Sky and Planetary Drawings.

Crotty is caretaker of a property on Malibu Beach. For the price of his rent in a West Coast location to die for, all he has to do is to clear the scrub from the scorched earth. But paradise has a price. He has to wear long leathers for protection from the rattlesnakes. And his nearest neighbour is Axl Rose.

California not only has great surf, but the south-west coast of America is also one of the prime locations in the world for stargazing. So a few years back Crotty bought some telescopes and a friend built the observatory through which he records the planets night after night in immense inky detail. His seductive and mesmeric sketches are penned in Biro. He became a latter-day incarnation of Stan Lee's earth-bound super-hero, the Silver Surfer, and his astronomical work is of such quality that it is lodged with the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. Crotty explains that hand-drawn sketches are often considered more accurate than images from a camera, because when you're filming the skies, you're also photographing the earth's atmosphere, and Crotty has trained his eye to pick out planetary detail. Like his surf drawings, the atlas sketches are obsessive attempts to picture the unrepresentable, for the stars are already in past time.

While the surf journals look like the well-thumbed adolescent scrapbooks they pretend to be, the enormous atlases, the Deep Sky and Planetary Drawings, are magnificently bound sculptures, standing alone like celestial covenants. Crotty himself is a magnificently bound, beach-boy blond. This hasn't helped the reception of his work in the art world, where surfers are perceived as beefcake and Baywatch - young, dumb and full of come. Crotty says, "Alarm bells ring in the art world when they hear of surf art. They think surfers are muscle-bound idiots."

Crotty's early work initially wasn't taken seriously simply because it was about surfing. He admits that it might also be due to the traditional tackiness of surfing images - "maybe it's because, when you think of surfing art, you think of palm trees and airbrushed waves. And when you think of astronomical art, you conjure up images of airbrushed sci-fi planets, phantasmagorical scenes of spiralling galaxies, splattered stars, lurid colours. In my current work I try to approach the grey areas."

The grey area of all Crotty's work is what appears when the subject matter is boiled down, pared away, stripped to its pulse. The sketches in the atlases range from swirls of galaxies and contour drawings of planets, to blow-ups of star clusters, squiggles that are almost entirely abstract but quantitatively exact. The shifts in scale replicate the change in magnification of the telescope. Despite the content of the work, it is not at all contemplative. The sketches are busy. There are different textures and tones to the apparent blackness, and nebulae whose random patterns belie the exactitude of the doodles by which they are depicted. Even the occasional narratives with which Crotty surrounds some of the images seem to be in a voice that has found the hotline to some high intensity nirvana. He describes one gathering of astronomers, a star party at Mt Pinos, as "next up ... in line then up the ladder peeking through the eyepiece and my mind is blown into orbit". The star system is "reeling around like a demented fan looking like an emblem from a savage past".

Crotty thinks there is a continuity between the astronomy and the surf work in that they are both experientially based and about cycles of time, of waves and stars. But also because "it's the same kind of obsession in astronomy and surfing. The difference is that surfers tend to be part of a sub-culture. A lot of them live out of their cars, just living to surf. Some of the amateur astronomers are like that. They'll build huge telescopes and suffer otherwise, because they have no money. And just as astronomers will travel to observe stars, there is a nomadic aspect to surfing, like chasing the good waves and conditions."

At art college Crotty was an abstract painter until he realised that the sketchbooks he'd been drawing since he was in high school were much more interesting. The surf books are "edited" by the character of Perge Wilcox in the style of a teenager's fake journal. They document in a fragmentary narrative the icons and territories of the surf world. With heroes like "the bearded master" and "Drake Edwardes", and titles such as Launch into Oblivion and the angry Notes from the Darkside '92, the surf books are a kind of Dan Dare as beach bum.

The surfer and wave are reproduced through a kind of jagging calligraphy. Crotty has produced one work that consisted of 40,000 one-inch grids, each grid having its own slightly different doodle. Crotty has undoubtedly turned the everyday activity of doodling into an art form. The LA Times declared that he was the "Ur-doodler of our times".

The books document the mental and physical landscapes of the surfer. The places have names like Skank Rock, Swamis and Freakwood. Surfing is not only a highly ritualised theatre, it's also tribal. There are specific territories for Latino surfers, and for Hell's Angel surfers (who have their headquarters in Oxnard, Northern California). These ZZ Top-bearded, pot-bellied pirates of the freeways apparently cut quite a sight on the surf board. Crotty explains: "Surf spots get names from local people. 'Hollywood-by-the-sea' is a place where you get your butt kicked if you surf and don't live there. 'Freakwood' is in northern California, where there's all this driftwood on the beach, and human driftwood, freaks hanging round with mush brains. People who moved there from LA in the Seventies and don't like other people and don't like other people coming up there because they moved there to get away from people."

Surfing isn't really a sport, it's a source of tribal conflict, a watery way to Zen and the favoured activity of the adrenalin junkie. The surfers in Crotty's books are alternately angry about environmental destruction and jokily mystical. On the one hand, they scream "No Troggs! [out-of- towners] No Buttwaggers! [people with a stiff surfing style] Don't drink the bovine wine! [the sewage that farmers feed into the sea]" On the other, a surfer implores, "Take me OMO [O! Mother Ocean], take me into the particle universe." The theatrical mysticism of the characters fails, however, to disguise what Crotty's Ur-doodling suggests - that surfing is simply about chasing the rush and "getting tubed".

n Russell Crotty shows at the Cabinet Gallery, Brixton, until 27 July (0171-274 4252)

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