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by David McCarthy

Photographs and homages are alike in that each can be a means of acknowledging and honoring the past. The former as an actual document of a split second in time, a moment captured for posterity. The latter typically a ritual act, carried out in time, conceived in honor of another person. Nick Micros’ sculpture, ‹Westermann & Uttley› (2017-18) has elements of both. Its title and figural pairing reference a famous photograph of the United States sculptor H. C. Westermann (1922-81) aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise during World War Two, as well as his acrobatic partner Wayne Uttley, with whom Westermann formed a partnership shortly after the war. The two men toured China and Japan with the United Service Organizations (U.S.O.) from 1946 to 1947. In the photograph Westermann performs as the topman, his back arched, legs in parallel formation, hands firmly clasped to the feet of an anonymous partner whose back rests squarely on the deck of the carrier on which the two practice their craft. Not as sailors or marines, just two men making the most of some welcome down time when the vessel was not embroiled in some of the most fraught action of the war in the Pacific. To practice sport in the midst of war was to reclaim the pleasures of life from before entering the service, and also to anticipate the continuation of such life after the war’s end. It was an affirmative act. As is Micros’ homage to the sculptor. ‹Westermann & Uttley› is far from appropriation because it moves beyond the act of quotation to an extended, imaginative rumination on the passage of time. Working in three dimensions, Micros has embodied, or given life to, not just that moment captured on paper, but a life lived in full in the years still to come. If the conceit is fairly simple, the resulting structure is anything but. Erected on a kind of wooden bier that functions as a pallet, pedestal, and funeral pyre, the body of the work is a nineteen-foot long, open frame bottle within which resides a rusted model of the Enterprise. The three-dimensional rendition of the acrobats is placed on the aft deck. Hand modeled in clay, the figures have the mass and density not only of actual bodies, but also of traditional public sculpture. Their moment of equipoise is thereby honored. In contrast, both the ship and the bottle are only sketched in, their forms comprised of metal mesh, rebar, and other recycled metals. They seem as perishable as the bodies are durable. The total effect suggests not memory, because Micros was not yet born, but rather evocation and elegy. Placing a scale model of a ship within a bottle is also a way of acknowledging sailors’ craft. The goal is to preserve memory with the bottle providing a protective container within which the model remains safe. This, of course, is in contrast with life itself which provides no such sanctuary from the relentless march of time. Micros’ decision to evoke the carrier could not be more apt, because Westermann spent the rest of his life making drawings and sculptures of ships as a means of recollecting his time in harm’s way. With ‹Westermann & Uttley› Micros honors the past, acknowledges a figure of inspiration, registers the passage of time, and issues a challenge for all of us to do likewise.

David McCarthy, May 3, 2020
An expert on modern and contemporary art in the United States.
David McCarthy is chair of the Department of Art & Art History at Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee.

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