Trenton Doyle Hancock’s drawings contemporize age-old conflicts

By Jacqueline Mitchell

Trenton Doyle Hancock_Fear Drawing

Trenton Doyle Hancock | Fear Drawing, 2008 | Mixed media on paper | 9 x 12 inches Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York

At a relatively young 40 years, Trenton Doyle Hancock has achieved a great amount of critical acclaim. But the artist – one of the youngest to be featured in the Whitney Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York – would rather reimagine himself as his alter ego, Torpedo Boy.

Muscular and sporting a yellow T-shirt emblazoned with a bright pink letter “T,” the character, which Hancock first concocted in fourth grade, is reminiscent of Superman, but infused with many of Hancock’s own qualities.

Torpedo Boy makes an appearance in much of Hancock’s work, which will be featured in the Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries at the Akron Art Museum until Jan. 4, 2015, in the exhibit “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing.”

Viewers can expect an array of work, as the exhibit features over 300 pieces, ranging from drawings Hancock made during his time as a student up until a body of work that he created just a few months ago.

“He is both an outstanding draftsman and an amazing storyteller,” Chief Curator Jan Driesbach says. “He’s developed a kind of myth that’s been a very key part of his work.”

The epic narrative of the myth, featuring Torpedo Boy, pits the Mounds, the protagonist animal-plant hybrids that populate the whimsical landscape Hancock has developed, against their mortal enemies, the Vegans, in a reinvention of the classic struggle between good and evil. He uses this fantastical setting as a vehicle to address serious issues.

Hancock’s two roommates at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia were the first vegans he ever met, inspiring the name of his villainous characters. It was at this time that he began developing his 20-year mythology. Hancock classifies the Vegans – thin, powerless, unhappy characters – as a stand-in for anyone who takes a position to the extreme, and his artwork illustrates what can result from that attitude.

Influenced by abstract expressionism and artists such as Philip Guston and Henry Darger, Hancock also draws upon comics, graphic novels, film, his toy collection and pop culture for inspiration.

“He pretty much looks at and seeps up everything,” Driesbach says.

Drawing is a medium that artists use informally to work out ideas, says Driesbach, so Hancock’s work offers a unique insight into the artist’s thinking process.

“It’s opportunity to see an artist in-depth,” she says.

Aside from his drawings, the exhibit also will feature paintings, a video Hancock recently created, wallpaper, murals and a ballet he choreographed.

His technique and materials have become much more abundant over the years, says Driesbach. He recently began creating elaborate collages.

“They’re all new avenues he’s exploring as we go through the course of the exhibition,” Driesbach says.

The African American artist grew up in Paris, Texas, and his experience living there has influenced his artwork, which he creates as a form of social discourse, using visual art to stimulate a dialogue. Some elements of his work are confrontational and provocative, and some are humorous. His stepfather, a Baptist preacher, instilled in him a love of language, so Hancock frequently uses anagrams and word play in his work.

“He engages us with ideas and is really geared toward creating a conversation,” she says.

Much of his work is in black and white, but he also has a wonderful color sense, says Driesbach.

“There are a number of pieces that have very lively color palettes,” she says.

Hancock spent 10 days at the Akron Art Museum during the exhibit’s installation, choosing the colors of walls and handwriting text on them.

“He’s so bright and extraordinarily articulate,” Driesbach says. “I was very much impressed. When we were going through our galleries, he would spend time with virtually every artwork on our walls.”

The exhibit, which has five thematic sections, is organized somewhat chronologically. The first gallery showcases early drawings and cartoons he drew for his college newspaper at what was formerly East Texas State University. Hancock’s subjects have changed and evolved over the past 20 years. His portraits, which date back to his undergrad years, became darker in 2010, when hi

s father passed away and he began analyzing himself in a different way.

“What makes the exhibit unique is really the combination it offers of exquisite stories, exquisite drawings and wonderful storytelling that also addresses some serious contemporary issues,” Driesbach says. CV

*Lead image: Trenton Doyle Hancock | Fear Drawing, 2008 | Mixed media on paper | 9 x 12 inches
Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York