With his massive chockablock canvases loaded with visual detritus and his jocular drawings that exhibit a tendency to dig into his own psyche, Texas artist Trenton Doyle Hancock’s exhibition at ACA Gallery of SCAD, We Done All We Could And None Of It’s Good, transports you to the id-factory of an artist’s studio, that physical metaphor for his or her brain. It’s no wonder the influence of Henry Darger has been mentioned in discussions of Hancock’s work: his “Dargerism” manifests in battles between a self-defined good and evil (in his warring “Mound” and “Vegan” creatures) as well as his obsessively personal approach, as the American Folk Art Museum suggested in a 2008 show. Hancock’s work conjures up what I would imagine to be the slightly crazed, potentially self-destructive experience of working in a vacuum and allowing visions, wacky ideas and self-flagellating anxiety to swirl around your head like dark angels, offering inspiration and damnation both.
Hancock’s enormous canvases afford endless visual fodder with their spit-wads of paint, globs of dirty fake fur, rain of variously hued teardrops of paint, layers of fabric, and a consistently appealing color palette of neon pink, black, gray, white, and a blazing lemon yellow. Viewers are welcomed into the gallery space with a site-specific touch: black hand-lettered words set against the white walls, repeating endlessly, “We Done All We Could and None Of It’s Good,” and setting the tone early on for, among other things, Hancock’s plumbing of male anxiety.
The two most commonly reoccurring images in Hancock’s work in We Done All We Could are a sinewy, clenched, bleeding, and wound-pocked arm and a cartoon figure with enormous eyes. A kind of ’60s countercultural spin on the Kilroy Was Here proto-graffiti icon, the google-eyed creature keeps popping up like a gopher or a Pac-Man in Hancock’s wild-style painterly landscapes. Its two half-circle eyes are a trope that crops up as a pair of lungs, church windows, and tombstones. While the hand and arm suggest an artist’s toil, the eyes evoke a constant state of vigilance and self-surveillance: the measuring, judgmental artist’s glance. Hancock’s show is a beguiling expression of suppurating artistic anxiety that’s extra fun to behold; his kitschy neon pinks and graphic grays define the gooey, fleshy, inward-looking obsessions of the artist.
Exhibit A in Trenton Doyle Hancock’s self-flagellation is a wall of 14 acrylic and mixed-media drawings on paper. Their angst is so deliciously kinky and self-effacing, it manages to evoke not only the battle-worn neurosis of the classic comic characters that Hancock references, but also the geeked-out, four-eyed spaziness of every preteen comic reader who ever walked the earth. Hancock’s superhero alter ego, Torpedo Boy, is an absurdly muscle-bound guy in yellow tights topped with a pair of jockey shorts—a posturing hard man who, we sense, has the heart of a pussy cat beating inside. In two paired bodies of work, “It Takes Two” and “Torpedo Boy and Heiren Hazo,” Hancock works two complementary strains, of superheroism and supergeekdom: his big-muscled superhero with a pink “T” on his super suit and a chunky, regular guy who has a hard time hefting his jeans over his midsection girth. Rendered predominately in shades of black, white, and gray, the images suggest newspaper comics that have been customized with pink and yellow markers to jazz up the alter ego’s superhero costume, or his pink lips.
A constant refrain in this collection of small works, hung en masse on one of the gallery’s walls, is Hancock’s paunchy, shame-filled body waging a desperate battle of the bulge. Like Superman, Doyle has his kryptonite, and it appears to be a Whopper. Strapped to a board half-naked, he claws madly at a glowing pink hamburger just out of reach in Sometimes We Can’t Have the Things We Don’t Want, madly cycling on a stationary bike despite the flashing red LED warning “Faster” in the corner of the image. Based on those goofusy drawings where Hancock sprouts exaggerated pink lips and blinks from behind his glasses, it’s hard not to love the poor cuss. Like discovering a child’s notebook filled with doodles, you shake your head at the obsessiveness even as you delight in access into the inner workings of another person’s psyche.
Is it possible for a black artist to create work this discordant, crazed, and improvisational and have someone not mention jazz? Probably not. Curator David Louis Norr of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland can’t help himself, as he references that musical form on more than one occasion. But more than jazz, Hancock’s work conjures up the oxymoronic, self-loathing, onanistic world of a teenage psyche steeped in psychedelia, R. Crumb doodles, and the gory, twisted wormholes and fugues of some internal, idiosyncratic soundtrack.