This was the invitation to Trenton Doyle Hancock's new show at James Cohan Gallery in New York. The lenticular card shows two images, one of the works in the show, As U Now Enliven a Test..., and a photo of the artist wearing glasses with drawn, bulging eyeballs on the lenses. This is a clue to the work. Hancock's subject is himself. It's quite a change from his earlier world-building project. This world, involving the human/vegetable hybrids called the "mounds" and the fallen ape-men known as "vegans," is delineated in great detail in his book, Me A Mound.
When you look at Hancock's work, it's obvious he is influenced by underground comics and art comics. But this influence is not just stylistic, but thematic. His early work involved taking a fairly odd (and indeed out-and-out silly) concept and building an entire world out of it with its own mythology, history, geography, etc. This is something that happens a lot with young alternative cartoonists. Sometimes they never progress beyond it--Dave Sim is a classic example of someone who took a jokey concept (a sword-wielding barbarian like Conan except he's an aardvark) and turning it into a career of sorts. The basic (and intentional) stupidity of the original concept his comic Cerebus was forgotten as it became a 25-year project. Chester Brown's serialized Ed the Happy Clown threatened to become something similarly overblown, but Brown nipped it in the bud. It wasn't the expressive vehicle that was going to see him through his 30s and 40s. Daniel Clowes must have had a similar revelation after spending several years drawing his jokey, amusing Lloyd Llewellyn comics followed by his deliciously creepy Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. Clowes and Brown moved beyond these surreal sins of their youth into a kind of realism (loosely defined). Brown in particular started producing autobiographical stories.
This is not to say that their earlier work was bad. It's simply that it had an end-point. The one cartoonist who failed to realize this, Dave Sim, ended up creating a bizarre, cranky work that survives as an eccentric but occasionally brilliant artifact of comics instead of what he apparently wanted, a Gesamtkunstwerk that incorporated philosophy and religion and myth into its massive structure. Hancock might have ended up producing a body of art that was the equivalent of Cerebus if he had continued to elaborate on the mounds and vegans. Instead, he has followed the path of Chester Brown in a way, creating a body of work that is highly personal.
Trenton Doyle Hancock, The Irreducible Crucible, 2012, mixed media collage on canvas, 18" x 24"
Many works in the show are self-portraits--although with The Irreducible Crucible, one might night deduce that without Hancock writing "I AM TDH" on the piece itself. Hancock may be using himself as a subject, but he has not suddenly become a realist. His hyperactive style, full of surreal distortions, remains active in this new body of work.
Trenton Doyle Hancock, ...and then it All Came Back to Me, 2011, mixed media on paper, 9" x 8"
Trenton Doyle Hancock, As U Now Enliven a Test, 2012, acrylic mixed media on canvas, 24" x 24"
Trenton Doyle Hancock, If You're Too Fat, You Should Buy Clothes That Fit, 2012, acrylic mixed media on canvas, 14" x 11" x 3/4"
The bulging bloodshot eyes make me think these three portraits are of Hancock himself (if only because of the way he depicted himself on the lenticular invitation.) These two portraits depict a mouthless figure with bands of black and white fun on their faces. Or possibly the fur is a mask. The bulging eyes suggest surprise or awe. The black and white stripes could refer to a racial self-conception--particularly is you read them as details of a mask that the character is wearing. The images are arresting. The vigorous drawing reminds of Gary Panter, an artist Hancock has acknowledged as an influence.
Trenton Doyle Hancock, The Everlasting Arms, version #2, 2010, acrylic mixed media on canvas, 60 x 60"
The black/white theme is present in The Everlasting Arms as well. Certain motifs are repeated in many of the works. The combinations of black, white, grey and pink color schemes. Graphic raindrop shapes, red or pink, perhaps symbolic of blood. (The fact that the two arms are severed reinforces the blood interpretation. But the oozing sores with their black pus suggests the arms were removed as a prophylactic precaution instead of by violence. Whatever the reason for their removal, it is one disturbing image.)
Trenton Doyle Hancock, All Things Known and Nothing to Own, 2012, acrylic mixed media on canvas, 10" x 8" x 3/4"
All Things Known and Nothing to Own again brings us the black, white, grey and pink color scheme. The pink forms a kind of penumbra around the face, as in If You're Too Fat, You Should Buy Clothes That Fit and ...and then it All Came Back to Me. But All Things Known and Nothing to Own adds another pink feature, the figure's enormous lips. While Hancock's work owes a debt to ccomics and cartoons, this piece reminds us of the way African-Americans were often treated-visually and as characters--in comics strips and books in the past. This figure could be an aged "Ebony" from Will Eisner's The Spirit. But at the same time, it come across as yet another version of TDH himself.
Trenton Doyle Hancock, The Former and the Ladder or Ascension and a Clinchin', 2012, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 84" x 132" x 3"
Trenton Doyle Hancock, The Former and the Ladder or Ascension and a Clinchin' detail, 2012, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 84" x 132" x 3"
Maybe the mask in the other paintings hides a nothing--a headless TDH frantically setting up the ladder (to success?) as in The Former and the Ladder or Ascension and a Clinchin'. The totality of the work on display here displays an anxiety, a wide-eyed and stunned disbelief. Maybe Hancock is reacting to his astonishing success. He can't pretend to be blasé about it. This is an artist that draws apemen fucking mounds of earth, a grungy son of underground comics, now doing murals on Cowboys Stadium and opening at Chelsea galleries. I'd be a little a little freaked out, too.