Dystopias I

I’ve been thinking about Bob Trotman, a sophisticated, self-taught artist whom I met this year.  Over the holidays I visited his sculpture Vertigoat the North Carolina Museum of Art: a larger-than-life guy in a business suit falls through space as if the bottom had dropped out; he looks surprised, terrified, and monumental. It’s the “monumental” that gets me, like the institutionalization of existential crisis. The falling figure is forever frozen in time like the characters on Keats’ Grecian urn, and while cheap analogies come readily to mind, I don’t want to settle too quickly on an interpretation that reads this work as an expression of the “Occupy Whatever” movement, vague political malaise, or even the larger Zeitgeist. It’s more like a local expression of a recurrent aspect of the human condition.

Trotman's "Vertigo"

When you stand underneath the falling man you can’t help but flinch, wondering just how strong those cables are–that block of wood must weigh a good 2,000 pounds, I figure–and you too could be crushed by gravitas.  Did this guy jump from a bridge without even loosening his tie first?  Was he pushed from an airplane?  Or did the floor simply disappear under him?  The sculpture’s title should make me think of comparisons to the Hitchcock movie, but instead my thoughts quickly flicker to another monumental sculptural form before which I stood open-mouthed on my last trip to London: Sir Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel at the Tate Modern, an unlikely alabaster performance that has been regarded as an allegory of Britain’s struggle in WWII, or of the Jews during the Holocaust.

Literally, it is just what it says: at the end of the wrestling match, though Jacob’s thighbone has been dislocated he refuses to give up, and the angel clutches him, sustains him perhaps against his will. The two become as one, their embrace almost a rescue, almost erotic. “Let me go,” cries the angel, “for the day breaketh.” And Jacob, beaten, persists: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”  It is a terrifying moment.

These two sculptures have no obvious connection:  one Biblical,  the other secular; one a fugue, the other a solo; one affirmative, one hinting at our darkest fear. Yet they touch me in the same place. I think I will have more to say about this.

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