We all want to feel important. Life can get in the way and the dreams we pined for as adolescents dissolve under the trappings of adulthood.
On some level, everyone can relate to the unlikeable salesman, Willy Loman, from Arthur Miller's play "Death of a Salesman." Faced with his own insignificance, Loman snaps: "I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman."
But Miller reminds us later that Loman is just "a terror-stricken man calling into the void for help that will never come."
In his second solo exhibition at the Visual Arts Center, "Business as Usual," North Carolina-based artist Bob Trotman explores characters such as Loman, the everyday corporate type. Visibly beaten down by life, Trotman's carved, representational sculptures begin as handmade clay maquettes. One room of the exhibit displays the mostly self-taught artist's clay models alongside drawings and studio experiments. To create the finalized form, Trotman works with David Caldwell, a professional wood carver. As Trotman says: "David takes it to third base. I take it home."
But don't consider these works as benign craft objects.
"I consider what I do now as fine art," Trotman says. "It flies or sinks on the strength of the expression and ideas, not on the skill with materials."
"I have always been interested in meaning and in what is really going on beyond the appearances of things," he continues. "That led me first toward religion, then toward philosophy, at first existentialism, now more toward social thought including politics, business, economics and labor relations."
With this larger context in mind, the figures take up a critical distancing by exposing the politically driven corporate world as grotesque and underhanded. To highlight these sinister elements, Trotman has chosen a dramatic exhibition setting for his automata figures. Directly referencing the theater, Trotman's figures appropriate a form of absurdist, Bertholt Brecht-like drama.
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors must physically check in and out as if punching timecards. Several ominous figures, including "Fountain" and "Waiter," are powered by motion -triggered motors and immediately meet viewers.
Some of these mixed-media works emit prerecorded sounds such as a high-pitched printer whine, as seen in "Slow Drip," a carved, talking head that sits on an office chair while receiving a yellow liquid, pumped through an IV bag, into his ear.
A second room displays several other motorized sculptures along with the video "Upper Hand," a collaboration between Trotman and his son, Bart. With these works, Trotman leaves interpretation open, allowing for metaphorical play while he creates "a form of Americana, accessible to a wide audience, but provocative and disturbing, as well as humorous."
Ironically, although his work is deeply moored in anti-corporate sentiment, two of Trotman's sculptures, "Shaker" and "Ladder Man/(Journey)," will be on display in Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art's "State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now," Sept. 15 to Jan. 19.
Founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton in 2011, Crystal Bridges is, along with Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters, in Bentonville, Ark. For the exhibition, 102 artists were selected from a list of 10,000 across America in order to "investigate what's happening in American art today." Intentionally highlighting overlooked and emerging artists from every geographical region, the exhibition mimics the Whitney Biennial's national survey, which began in the 1930s.
Trotman acknowledges the paradox. "Supposedly the museum has autonomy from Wal-Mart's agenda," he says. "But my contacts with them have felt pretty corporate so far."
This slippery slope between nonprofit art-collecting institution and corporate-led showcase creates an interesting place of interrogation. Instead of considering his involvement a negative turn, Trotman's inclusion in "State of the Art" might be seen as infiltration into corporate America. Like the character in "Slow Drip," who consumes an unknown material at an incremental pace, Trotman's critical treatment of the business environment might cause viewers to reexamine the status quo to think critically about the labor relations used by large, corporate entities.
Rather than succumbing to the powerful or setting aside dreams, Trotman's works encourage a dialogue for redefining success. "Business as Usual" serves as an entrance for exploring the debate. S
"Bob Trotman: Business as Usual" runs Sept. 5-Oct. 31 at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, 1812 W. Main St. For information call 353-0094 or visit visarts.org.