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In a self-portrait titled Becoming the Toy Maker (all works 2018), we see a haunting rendition of a prodigal son being anointed by a colorless hand. While the religious symbolism is pronounced, the piece— included in Trenton Doyle Hancock’s solo show at Shulamit Nazarian—also operates as latent commentary on creating art and the existential questions around who artists serve.
It’s unclear whether the artist is “coming home” to the world of comics and graphic novels that influenced his career, or if he’s grappling with his place in the commercial art world, but if we use Hancock’s lore and thematic body of work as a guide, that ambiguity appears intentional. His work revolves around characters that eschew categorization, and they pave the way for the artist to challenge our compulsion to define the art world through binary constructs. By creating access points to his work through high and low art, Hancock allows the space for viewers of his work to meet somewhere in between, revealing a world where distinctions between the two are unnecessary.
For his first solo show in Los Angeles, titled An Ingenue’s Hues and How to Use Cutty Black Shoes, Hancock introduces an L.A. audience to the characters he’s been depicting for years in a mythical universe he calls the Moundverse. The show guides viewers through Hancock’s fantastical world in a series of paintings that use text and vibrant color to represent the two energies that govern his work: the stark rigidity of dogma and the fluid pliancy of love.
As a young artist influenced by comics, pop culture, and Greek mythology, Hancock received critical and institutional acclaim when his work was featured in back-to-back Whitney Biennials in 2000 and 2002. His fictional universe revolves around a species of half plant, half human mutants called the “Mounds” who are introduced through a series of 12 enlarged ink panels of the first chapter of an epic graphic novel currently in progress. The Mounds’ sole purpose is to transform negativity and trauma into beauty and love; however, their existence is threatened by a group of cursed, colorless beings whose mission is to destroy and harvest them as food.
A superhero named Torpedo Boy—the artist’s alter ego— protects the mounds but finds himself under attack by external forces and inner demons. Hancock deploys his multidimensional characters in the Moundverse in an autobiographical exploration of his youth in North Texas where the religious beliefs of his conservative Baptist community informed the strict, black and white, unyielding characteristics of his dogmatic characters. Conversely, according to the gallery, the strong, protective, nurturing traits of the women in Hancock’s family are artistically rendered in the colorful guardians within the Moundverse. With a nod to the narrative structure of graphic novels, Hancock reveals the origin stories of his characters within his paintings, refusing to allow them to neatly fit into paradigms of good and evil. He teases out this tension on canvas.
In the painting Step and Screw Part Too Soon Underneath the Bloody Red Moon, heroes and villains are not quite what they appear to be. Hancock’s alter ego is playing football while being chased by a cartoon klansman whose body is inhabited by the colorless enemies of the Mounds. The klansman’s hatred, which appears to be fed by the beings inside him, is represented in a digestive tract made from a long red rope fashioned into a noose. Within the background of the painting, Hancock has embedded panels from his first comic book (also called Step and Screw), a horrifying tale of blind altruism met with betrayal as Hancock’s superhero is tricked into his own demise by a group of hidden klansmen. In this piece, Hancock reveals a vulnerability and fallibility in his superhero that’s mirrored in other multidimensional characters in the show.
Elsewhere, a life-size sculpture of a cosmic deity, Undom Endgle, stands with her arms extended in a powerful Vitruvian woman stance; she’s surrounded by halos of brightly colored shellacked balls that are strung together with white steel hoops. A constellation of similarly patterned circles and bottle caps are painted on the white gallery wall behind her. Within this cosmic scene, Hancock reveals subtle details that belie the colorful galaxy over which she reigns. She’s wearing a black and white bodysuit that gives way to series of small pink silicone figures of children and wolves that appear to protrude from her body. While the dolls ground her in motherly, protective guardianship, they also expose a tenuous relationship with the wolves that intensifies in a nearby painting.
A dizzying maze of colors yields to a dismembered head of the wolf caught in the clenched fist of a goddess in The Sound of Ocello Opo as the Sun Rises in Her Hands. It’s a gruesome scene of entwined limbs and fists radiating in a kaleidoscope of color that’s beautifully rendered through Hancock’s use of color. The same pink dolls that are embedded in Undom Endgle are depicted in this work, standing along the side of the scene, serenely watching the battle take place. Their inaction implies a darker complicity.
Hancock uses common threads among disparate works to reveal his commitment to the continuity of lore as his practice and the themes in his work evolve. In addition to the work on view in the show, prototypes of trading cards and vinyl collectible dolls from Hancock’s Moundverse are on display in the gallery. While these items would be more at home in a booth at Comic Con, they are import- ant signifiers of Hancock’s straddling of two different art worlds. While on the surface this appears to be fraught with potential channel conflict, the diversification of his work expands his audience rather than cannibalizes it. The grey space he occupies is mirrored in many of the characters on display in the show, revealing complexities that challenge us to think beyond the rigid paradigms that govern how we see the world. Operating in an art world that draws a bright line between high and low art, Hancock has carved out a place where his work is legible in multiple spaces.
Colony Little is a Los Angeles based writer and founder of Culture Shock Art, covering emerging contemporary art in California with a focus on Black artists. She is also a contributing writer for artnet News, Arts.Black, Art Practical, and Hyperallergic. (@cultureshockart).
This review was originally published in Carla issue 15.