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Thursday, June 16, 2011
Crotty Storms the Thanet Coast

When high art meets dreamy surf sketches.

Imagine the Dogtown section of Venice Beach, CA, and it's defunct amusement pier, Pacific Ocean Park, re-settled outside of London on the southeast coast of England. The landscape has completely changed, but much of the visual detritus is familiar -- the former grandeur, the ill-fated decay, the gritty potential. Chalk cliffs replace condo high rises, but like Venice Beach of the '70s, as a tourist destination Margate had known better times. In an effort to battle generational blight, at the start of the millennium a number of organizations came together with a grand regeneration plan centered around an arts installation called the Turner Contemporary. The structure took 11 years to build. Its directors were at pains to establish a connection between the local, working-class population and this center for cutting-edge art. Of the six opening artists, California's Russel Crotty was chosen to not only exhibit, but to make art based on their coastline -- possibly the highest honor for a so-called "surf artist." And yet, on a working level, the similarities between namesake J.M.W. Turner and Crotty appeared uncanny.

Russel Crotty, portrait of a surfer as an artist.

Turner was a landscape painter who lived part-time and worked in Margate two hundred years ago. He was said to have himself tied to a ship's mast during a raging storm so that he could experience the force of nature in its most raw form. Off the mast, he painted shipwrecks, fires, and fog in atmospheric landscapes that came to bridge his artistic age into that of the French Impressionists like Renoir and Monet. But when it came to oceanic environment, Turner gave himself the most license, re-imagining events in order to capture the truth of how it felt rather than the truth of how it looked.

Likewise, for more than three-decades, surfer and artist Russel Crotty has been scowering western coastlines and assembling a body of work that is on one hand the sketches of a 19th-centry gentleman observer, and on the other, the mad scribblings of a surf-rebel runaway. The connection between Turner and Crotty is two-fold: their regard for scientific enquiry, and their willinginess to throw it away.

Crotty's license with real coastlines appear as both fitting and bizarre to surfers. One theme he's worked into many of his "California Homegrounds" volumes sets Australia's Ballena Wall into a scene inspired by Oxnard, CA. -- the jetty wave is perfect, but the landscape is rife with bikers, local thugs and what Crotty refers to as general "near-do-wells."

Crotty's work at the Turner Contemporary.

So when the Turner Contemporary commissioned Crotty to re-imagine the Thanet coast and flew him out to England to walk its beaches, the chalk cliffs inspired his work, and the decrepit beach town anchored it. He produced a 24" globe that honors the white cliffs and two books -- Coastal Wanderings and Spotcheck Thanet -- that re-imagine it. Most of this has to do with Thanet's lack of significant swell. It basically faces France in the narrows of the English Channel. But for Crotty, any girder or jetty looked right for funneling Sandspit-style point wave, chalk reefs came alive with long-distance ground swell. On his visit, Crotty also discovered Margate's Lido, a crumbling concert venue on the sea, the perfect setting for a Dogtown-like setup.

"It's hard to make that stuff up," says Crotty. "Those details have to come from cumulative experience and observation, or it's just right there in front of you in all its glory. Then my mind starts working in terms of text. How could this place be? What would the locals be like? Is there a sense of danger? Can you leave your stuff on the sea wall without it getting stolen?"

It goes to show that the thing surfers do, when looking down a landscape and wishing for a bend here, or a jetty there, runs deeper than a mere spot check. When willing winds follow the directions of a new landscape, a lasting physicality exists in the mind and not just in sand or stone. Believing, they say, is half of being.