Bob Trotman’s Larger-Than-Life, Sometimes Automated Sculptures of Bosses and Office Workers Expose the Vices Behind a Signal American Virtue | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Bob Trotman’s Larger-Than-Life, Sometimes Automated Sculptures of Bosses and Office Workers Expose the Vices Behind a Signal American Virtue 

Bob Trotman: "Floor Man" (2011)

Photo courtesy of the Gregg Museum

Bob Trotman: "Floor Man" (2011)

Walking into the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at N.C. State University, the first thing you see is a massive white man's head suspended from the ceiling. Furrowed brows frame his beady eyes and veins protrude at his temples as if he's watching your every move. This omnipresent "boss" literally looms over the exhibit, his resin face staring down at his subordinates in the galleries with an unflinching gaze. Reminiscent of the ancient Roman "Colossus of Constantine" statue, in which the subject's scale communicates the godlike quality of the emperor, this piece, "Face Time," emphasizes that the boss is to be feared and obeyed under all circumstances—or else.

Running at the Gregg until mid-summer, Bob Trotman's exhibit Business as Usual incorporates mixed-media and video art into dozens of figurative sculptures that occupy wall and floor space in several galleries, inviting viewers to observe the work from different angles. The exhibit critiques the toxic implications of big business by unmasking its prosperity gospel of greed and envy at the expense of human workers. Utilizing tropes of parody and satire, Trotman depicts underlying evils in an increasingly fascist economy by hyperbolizing the villains and the plebes with cartoon-like animation.

"Making the bottom line the top priority puts enormous pressure on human values," Trotman writes in the exhibition text. "It is a practice that has long characterized the corporate world, and now, increasingly, also characterizes government policy. What becomes of those who are caught up in this system, either as perpetrators or victims?"

Originating from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Trotman is a self-taught sculptor who works primarily in wood, resin, tempera, and wax. His process is labor-intensive. Beginning with extensive sketches, he builds an array of clay figures. He then scales the models from doll-size to larger-than-life and hand-carves blocks of wood into their final forms. Trotman uses wood as his primary medium because of the influence of carved religious figures, folk art, and ship's mastheads.

Drawing upon his undergraduate studies in philosophy, Trotman illustrates systemic abuses of power in business and government. His figures are anonymous white-collar workers, either strategically climbing the corporate ladder or suffering under capitalism's corruption, individualism, and materialism. They are dressed in the boring staples of work-wear uniforms: conservative pumps and pencil skirts, mass-produced suits and wingtips.

Bob Trotman: "Face Time" (2018) - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GREGG MUSEUM
  • Photo courtesy of the Gregg Museum
  • Bob Trotman: "Face Time" (2018)

As Michel Foucault observed, the structure of corporate business long ago adopted the model of a prison in which inmates are monitored by unseen authority figures and motivated primarily by fear. We observe these effects in the expressions of Trotman's figures, who are satirically characterized as terrified under the surveillance of their superiors ("Quorum"), drowning in despair ("Chorus: Kaitlin, Martin and Jane"), or self-medicating ("Slow Drip").

Trotman encapsulates economic idolatry by incorporating monetary symbols, such as the seal on our currency, as well as bank vaults and safes. If the American dream is a religion practiced at the capitalistic church of performance and competition, Trotman asks who benefits and suffers when the almighty dollar is worshipped. The details in his caricatured faces show that they have become hardened to the reality that people are expendable in the ecosystem of private enterprise. It's also instructive to observe that his entire cast of employees is white—some of his sculptures are even titled "White Man"—reinforcing that racism and sexism are intrinsic byproducts of hierarchical work environments.

Echoes of 9/11 are present in Trotman's wall sculptures of employees standing on skyscraper ledges or hanging in midair as if hurtling toward the ground. Whether they are literal or symbolic, they horrifically recall an icon of American commerce collapsing at the expense of human life. We might also recall the sobering repercussions of the housing-market crash of 2008, with its drastic repercussions of incalculable financial loss.

Trotman uses the form of the automaton—simple machines designed to function automatically and repetitively—to propose his concerns about the dehumanization of workers, slogging through the motions just to punch out at the end of a weary day. How numb must workers become to climb the hierarchy toward financial success while secretly living lives of quiet desperation? Social and communal values are trampled by those in power, who have individualistic and personal agendas.

Though it was made two years prior to Donald Trump's election, "Trumpeter" seems like a particularly on-the-nose caricature of our POTUS as a CEO. From the shoulders down, we see a nondescript suited figure carved from wood. The head, however, has been replaced by a fiberglass trumpet connected to a motion-activated speaker. As you draw close to observe the details, the sculpture emits indiscernible squawking sounds—a caustic jab, implying that the bullying figurehead offers citizens nothing more than a farcical circus of noise.

Thus, Trotman examines the consequences of stratified business models, particularly when they are enshrined as governmental practices. By continuing to justify the perpetual cycle of labor exploitation as an expendable, profitable resource, "business as usual" constitutes a haunting vice that is championed as a virtue in American economics and politics.

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