Artist carves images of harsh corporate culture

An artist carves disturbing images of our harsh corporate culture

Staff writerMay 31, 2009 

  • What: Bob Trotman's "Business As Usual"

    Where: Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte.

    When: Through Nov. 14.

    Cost: $10 adults; $8 senior citizens and college students; $5 ages 5-17.

    Contact: 704-337-2000; www.mintmuseum.org

— They look like figureheads of a clipper ship bound for purgatory.

Anguished and agonized, wretched and woebegone, they are souls petrified in eternal torment.

Never mind they were hatched before 9/11, pre-AIG, ahead of the bank-bubble burst. In their unseeing eyes is the vision of modern corporate culture, an unsettled realm of gloom, reversals and free-flowing stomach acid.

Newly opened at the Mint Museum of Art, "Business As Usual" meets Banktown. Its edges are as sharp as the city's skyline but spring from the shadowland of commerce.

Bob Trotman, who spent about five years sculpting the exhibition, is flattered that viewers see contemporary economic themes in his carvings.

"I don't object to people reading headlines into the work," he says. "I expect it. Something else could come along and people would see it differently.

"I'm just trying to tap into the hidden emotion behind economics, greed and panic, the irrational, emotional roller-coaster that is part of the ebb and flow of history."

From helpless figures sinking into a quicksand floor to a shrouded team of scapegoats, Trotman's 10 pieces seem to capture the outrushing tide of modern business. It is a dark, disturbing view, a tableau of distress in sync with an era of uncertainty.

And oddly, it describes a vivid world that Trotman knows only as an outsider.

Groomed for success

Trotman, 61, was raised in Winston-Salem in the 1950s and '60s, son of a Wachovia banker. He remembers his father as straitlaced and distant.

In eighth grade, Trotman worked with wood in shop class and loved it, but his parents made it clear he needed to stick to his books. Their vision of his future was a good education and a climb-the-ladder career.

He did stick to the books. He never followed the professional path.

"It became increasingly clear to me that I wouldn't. But for me it's always been a shadow thing, the thing I didn't do."

After getting a degree in philosophy in 1969 from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., he took jobs teaching English so he could get a draft deferment. He was prepared to move to Canada to avoid military service in Vietnam.

Society was roiling in the age of Aquarius, and in the summer of 1973, Trotman and friends set up a hippie commune in rural North Carolina. Among Trotman's contributions to the cooperative was constructing crude furniture, including a dinner table. He liked the rural lifestyle and was soon making a living by building furniture and selling it at crafts fairs.

For $1,500, he and his wife bought an 1899 farmhouse in Casar (rhymes with razor) in the foothills between Morganton and Shelby. They lived minimally at first with an outhouse and water pulled from a well.

He stuck with furniture-making and become progressively better at it. He slowly began to incorporate human forms in his creations. In 1997, he let go of furniture and moved into figurative sculpture full time.

"I started using business people as my subjects in late '90s, way before the economic collapse," Trotman says. He was describing the world he knew from his childhood, the world of expectations from his banker father.

As a philosophy student, he liked to study how life and business intertwined.

"A lot of people have looked at society through the lens of economics. Through a visual way, I take up with some of that tradition. I definitely see the dark side of it as well. I guess I'm not emphasizing the good points. You can have a very comfortable life that way -- but I feel I don't have to point that out. I'm more interested in the shadows.

"My characters, my people, I'm more interested in seeing them dissatisfied, troubled, knowing that material success is not everything by a long shot ... If I imagine I were one of those people, I wouldn't be having a good time. It's the way I would imagine myself if I were trapped in that world."

Figures from the wood

Trotman's figures emerge from basswood, also known as linden, which grows in the North. He shops for pieces at the lumberyard Huntersville Hardwoods. Occasionally, he uses trees, usually dead poplars, that grow on his 60-acre refuge in Rutherford County.

He starts with drawings, then progresses to a clay model. Next are full-size shop drawings, then comes shaping with a chainsaw, then chipping.

"It's an organized and systematic way of proceeding. It isn't like I gaze into the log and see it. Michelangelo said something like that once to some bankers. It's a famous thing, 'I look into the stone and see the figures there.'"

Michelangelo was just messing with them, Trotman says. Michelangelo started with models, too.

Trotman shapes delicate parts -- hands, limbs, neckties -- out of separate wood pieces and attaches them to the body. He likes to leave the joints visible.

He uses water-based paints, usually tempera, in the finishing process, more of a stain wash than an opaque paint. These soak into the wood rather than cover it. He finishes the pieces with wax, which gives the material a sheen. "I don't varnish, which would embalm the wood."

Crude metal bands and naturally occurring cracks add a sense of distress to the sculptures, says Carla Hanzal, the Mint's curator of contemporary art and one who has long been interested in Trotman's works.

"It is a really fitting show for Charlotte," she says. "Hopefully people will find it somewhat humorous and somewhat meditative."

Inspired by silent cinema

One disturbing piece in the exhibit is "The Cover-up," which shows a group of people beneath a drapery.

It was inspired by the 1925 movie "The Battleship Potemkin," about the 1905 mutiny aboard a Russian vessel. Sailors complaining about maggot-infested food and other conditions were put under a tarp in the bow of the ship and their crewmates were ordered to shoot them. They balked and threw the czar's oppressive officers off the ship instead.

"I changed the context from Marxist to capitalist and substituted office workers for the sailors," says Trotman. "I mean for it to be ambiguous ... A 'cover-up' literally refers to the shroud, but figuratively to wrongdoing, deception and a sense of shame, whether of those under the shroud or those outside it.

"I see this as related to the kinds of denials and blind spots that periodically afflict society -- enhanced interrogation is not torture, housing prices can rise forever, global warming is an illusion, Iraq was responsible for 9/11, etc., etc."

Despite breaking with his parents' vision of career, Trotman has become successful on his own terms.

He and his wife have fixed up that old farmhouse and it now has indoor plumbing. Though he likes the rural lifestyle, he spends a lot of time in New York City and other cultural centers. He has works in the permanent collections of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, the N.C. Museum of Art and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, among others.

They have two grown sons, one a musician in Greensboro and one who took up the art business, in a way. He's a curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

"He didn't enjoy the rural isolation as much as we did," Trotman says. "I'm so glad I gave him something to rebel against."

mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5007

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