If there is one thing that my internship in the Curatorial Department at the NCMA has taught me, it is that I am undoubtedly an art nerd. You can imagine my excitement when there was an opportunity to tour Bob Trotman’s exhibition Inverted Utopias with Linda Dougherty, chief curator and curator of contemporary art. She guided the staff through the exhibition and explained her process, offering insights into Trotman’s intentions. The tour came with a surprise: looking comfortable but polished in a black long-sleeved shirt, Bob Trotman himself leaned on the railing in the back of the group and gave a lighthearted wave and nod of approval as Linda talked. How exciting!
Trotman calls his figures embodiments of a “dystopian America,” a foil to Rockwell’s utopian images of the American Dream. Toppled housewives and sinking businessmen make up his vision of 1950s cookie-cutter convention. He turns static material—wood—into figures that vibrate with tense energy, so confined by their roles that they threaten spontaneous combustion. The only interruptions in his pristine craftsmanship are strategically placed splits in the wood that call attention to the unease that is hidden beneath the starched shirts, sensible pumps, and strained smiles of his characters.
When we all stood looking up at Vertigo, Trotman’s first self-portrait and a new addition to the NCMA’s collection, Linda noted its reference to Yves Klein’s iconic 1960 photograph Leap into the Void. The visual and conceptual resemblance is clear—an ordinary-looking man in a suit triumphantly breaks free from life’s constraints as he plunges off a building. But a darker parallel exists underneath the obvious similarities. Klein’s photograph was fabricated, a lie. This “staged lie” is the truth behind Trotman’s Inverted Utopias—the uncomfortable reality that one cannot really leap off the building, sink into the ground, or hide beneath the sheets. There is no escape for his characters.
No escape. I went back to the exhibition with that in mind. Is it really that dark? Trotman has a beautiful way of exposing the sad realities of everyday life, our hidden agendas and concealed burdens, with just enough humor to help us pretend we only imagined that glimpse of ourselves in Arden or Martin. Am I Janet? I think I am wearing her shoes. Perfectly camouflaged in my badge and business attire, I can’t help but feel exposed by her presence, as if I, too, am beginning to spin off my axis into the Void. I turn away only to find myself scrutinizing the exhibition as if I were a member of Trotman’s Committee, ready to offer up my art-savvy intern input like the Cake Lady’s chocolate confection.
I think we, as museumgoers, often get caught up in the appeal of collecting experiences. Seeing works of art and high-profile exhibitions becomes a part of that pressing “better-yourself” checklist. We start darting around, snapping photos and referencing our list of the museum highlights without really seeing anything. Check, check, check. Bob Trotman’s characters do not allow this type of detached viewing. Instead, they mirror back to us that delusion of checkboxes against which we all measure ourselves and confront us head-on with solid, tangible personifications of our own flawed realities.
So, art nerd, housewife, professional, adolescent, and museum wanderer, unite—Trotman has something for all of us. Take a moment with Inverted Utopias to put down the checklist and help Olive Suit find his shoe, picture the faces under Cover Up, and wonder what Stu might look like, if he just opened his eyes.
Laura Ritchie, Curatorial Intern