art: Mixed Messages 

Bob Trotman's wooden citizens don't seem to care about the predicaments they're in.

Such movies come to mind when viewing "Model Citizens," Hand Workshop's current exhibition by North Carolina artist Bob Trotman. In it, wooden figures, often dressed like characters in these musicals, skirt obstacles with a similar bravado, although here we're not sure of cause or ultimate effect.

Nine wooden bodies, some barely stained with pigments and others painted in realistic tones, occupy the gallery. Represented in varying degrees of compromise, they twist or contort, yet the viewer is left to wonder just how much jeopardy they face. Except for the male figure that seems to be in the process of being swallowed in "Sinking Feeling," the expressions on the figures show little sign of panic. In fact, they seem to exude confidence.

In "Janet (Free Fall)" a figure in a green dress and matching heels lands on her head, as if spinning in an '80s break dance. Her arms and legs are askew, but Janet's fall will not yield injury or even embarrassment. Like her fellow "citizens," she seems oddly in control, or controlled like a puppet.

That these seemingly model citizens are caught in the midst of a stunt forces one to wonder just what got them there. Why, for example, must the June Cleaver-like figure called "Cake Lady" kneel to present the product of her baking effort? Why do "Poor Paul" and "Mia," dressed in street clothes, writhe on the floor? Are their positions compromised or intentional, performed or candidly captured?

Evidence of handwork and the simple, almost na‹ve manner in which they are presented quickly endear the figures to the viewer. Undoctored splits in the surface speak to vulnerability of both wood and mankind, while exposed joints reinforce the fact that these citizens are constructed literally and figuratively by external forces. Another visual feature in these citizens is their place in time. While Trotman carves just enough information for the viewer to understand its gesture, he accentuates hair styles and items of clothing such as neckties or a ruffled kitchen apron to indicate a mid-20th- century time frame. Midcentury, middle-class, and middle of the road — these citizens are stuck in the middle no matter how you stack it.

"Model Citizens" offers entertaining theater, whether vaudevillian or dramatic. There may be no reconciliation between the masklike sweetness of these figures' expressions and the positions of their bodies, but the viewer will be mesmerized just the same. And thanks to the artist's choice to work simply and straightforwardly, we take in the theater as we might a surreal musical rather than a heavy-handed opera.

As the Hand Workshop Gallery handout suggests, the artist may think of these citizens as tripped by social constraints. Viewers may prefer to see them as dancers whose physical or mental prowess affords quick and painless rebound. S

"Bob Trotman: Model Citizens" is on display through July 21 at the Hand Workshop Art Center, 1812 W. Main St. Call 353-0094 for more information.


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