Trenton Doyle Hancock: Fun Hole Funnel, 2010, acrylic and mixed mediums on paper, 13 by 12 inches; at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Trenton Doyle Hancock’s dizzying midcareer retrospective had the density of jokes, random asides and self-referentiality of a maximalist novel. Hancock treated the gallery the way his literary contemporaries (he’s a year older than Zadie Smith) treat the literary form. In his work, fictions wrap themselves around fictions, expectations are built and then deflected, and emotional and intellectual authenticity seems to burst from every detail, however outlandish it may at first appear.  

This approach is simultaneously engrossing and distracting. The sheer amount of stuff to look at in the show drew the eye here and there, and one’s mind was sent spinning in dozens of directions. Many of Hancock’s individual drawings, packed with cartoonlike imagery, have this effect in microcosm. Sometimes We Can’t Have the Things We Want (2009) is a self-portrait depicting the naked artist doubled over and hanging from a white board by a string tied around his waist. A burger on the ground just out of reach glows a tantalizing pink (the most prominent color to appear in Hancock’s mostly black-and-white world). The figure’s frowning, bespectacled head is framed by a white nimbus of frustration that interrupts the bricklike pattern of bark on the barren trees in the forest behind him. Each of the hundreds of rectangles of bark contains a distinct squiggle, creating a hallucinatory effect. The similarly detailed zebra-striped, dotted and pyramidal rocks and plants strewn on the ground evoke a field of ruins. Why the artist’s otherwise dark legs are entirely white to mid-calf is unclear. Is the figure unfinished, or was he partially dipped in the same white paint as the board? Is the white coloring an innocuous formal element, or is there deeper symbolism in this whiting-out of the figure’s crosshatched black skin? And that’s just one complex drawing out of hundreds in the show that have been variously framed and mounted, displayed in vitrines, rendered directly on gallery walls or presented on unstretched canvases hung from grommets.   

Several childhood drawings included in the exhibition point to Hancock’s fascination with comic books while growing up in Paris, Tex. His formal studies began at East Texas State University, with the draftsman Lee Baxter Davis, an influence Hancock acknowledges in the exhibition catalogue. In 2000, his second year of grad school at Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art, Hancock was included in the Whitney Biennial (he was in the next one, too). The works that gained him attention were his drawings of the war between mythical “mounds” and “vegans,” characters that mocked both the artist, an omnivorous African-American from rural Texas, and his uptight, white grad-school roommates. In Vegan Meat Training (2000-01), emaciated figures, the vegans, are held tight by plant stems while being forced to stare at drooping steaks and dripping ribs. Several are puking. The vegans can act fiendishly. In Vegans Collect Moundmeat in Buckets (2002), ghoulish vegans disembowel the vast corpse of a furry, black-and-white-striped mound, while in Vegans Send Newly Acquired Moundmeat to the Tofu Converter (2004) the pink sludge sluicing out of massive pipes is flecked with white-and-black remnants of the mounds’ fur. 

These drawings owe much to the jam-packed surrealism of mid-20th-century artist Irving Norman, and throughout the show, there were nods to countless artistic precedents. In one of the most recent series, the 30-part “Step and Screw” (2014), Hancock’s alter ego, Torpedo Boy, screws in a lightbulb for a stranger only to realize he’s surrounded by Philip Guston’s hooded Klansmen. He cowers and says, “You didn’t tell me you were . . . Painters!” Hancock often uses such gentle humor to deflect the fraught situations he sets up. 

For all the brutal truths that are acknowledged in Hancock’s work, the sheer mutability of form (and a deep vein of humor) becomes a powerful way to think about some of the more intractable problems that fill our much less malleable world.