Return to Reality: Q+A with Trenton Doyle Hancock

Photo by Fraser Stables.


For the past 12 years or so, Trenton Doyle Hancock has explored an invented mythological world through paintings and prints, sculptures and installations. In that world, good battles evil, as hybrid creatures called “Mounds”–part Neanderthal, part plant–fight to survive in the heart of a pristine jungle. They are beset by “Vegans,” the colorblind Neanderthals who seek to destroy them. The Mounds are for better or worse protected by a character called Torpedo Boy, who is, in Hancock’s words, “a superhero but also a screw-up.” As the stories unfold, Mounds are sometime killed but mostly manage, Vegans lose and regain their hateful ways, and Torpedo Boy (an alter-ego of the artist) does the best he can.


For his fifth show at James Cohan Gallery in New York, ” . . . And then it all came back to me,” on view through Dec. 22, Hancock, who was born in Oklahoma City and raised in East Texas, has temporarily abandoned his usual characters to explore a more directly autobiographical trajectory. The emotional charge of these paintings, some quite physically imposing because of their size, colors, subject matter and complexity of space, results, he says, from his willingness to abandon what he now sees as the distancing effects of his earlier storytelling, and to turn to details from his past.

Hancock and I met at the gallery in November to talk about the new direction his work has taken.

PAOLA FERRARIO You’ve told me that you grew up in a karate dojo, since your stepfather was a sensei [master instructor]. What have you brought to this new work from that world?

TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK One of the major things I learned studying Kamishin Ryu [a karate style] under my stepfather, and “living the life,” as he called it, was discipline. This provided a framework for a person to move though space and situations with confidence. I also played football for six years in school and even though I wasn’t very good at sports it was okay, because through it all I could see myself getting better and stronger. Once you get to a certain point, those basic things that you learn become muscle memory, and you don’t have to think about them any longer.

I transfer those ideas to art. After you’ve made certain marks for so long, it’s like you have grown new fingers and parts of your body to execute them. You continue to exercise those muscles, but not on a conscious level. Growing up with karate was a good way to enact, early in my life, the ideas of performance and moving through space poetically.

It’s hard to talk about martial arts practice divorced from church practice. I had a fundamentalist Christian experience. Like in karate, there are rituals designed to make you stronger. And that’s how they talk about it: getting stronger in your faith, being a warrior-a prayer warrior. My family talked in those terms, and then I’d turn around and be in the dojo and it was the same language, just in a different context. Then I’d be in the studio, and again it was the same exact language, but this time I used a brush and performance and not a fist or katas.

FERRARIO I’m thinking about something you said in your Art21 interview, “I hope for my painting to be the merging of comic book narrative with the history of abstraction.” Don’t these two approaches require very different skills and different muscle memory?

HANCOCK There have been examples throughout art history that have merged those codes successfully. Picasso’s Cubist work comes to mind, in the way he merged collapsed forms and overlapping time frames. De Kooning then attempted to one-up Cubism by taking it out of this intellectual space and putting it in a physical space, as if he was saying: “This is what a body would look like if it were chopped up.” It’s definitely a lot more brutish and visceral than what Cubism was. As if to say, “Here’s the reality of cubism.” [Laughs.]

I also think of Gary Panter, who designed Pee Wee Herman’s playhouse, and like me is from East Texas. To me he is the natural evolution of Picasso, though he goes one step further and actually makes comic books. He is the Picasso of the graphic novel, chopping up space and showing you all these multi-facets and perspectives that almost merge and then do battle on the picture plane.

When I first talked about combining comic books and abstraction, I think I was at the very beginning of that process. I hadn’t made much work to support it. Over the course of the ten years since that interview with Art21, every move I’ve made has been towards trying to make that statement a reality.

FERRARIO So in your work you combine a fantastical world and the tradition of abstract painting. But in this latest work you have also incorporated your “reality” in details like your grandmother’s floor and other allusions to the surroundings in which you grew up.

HANCOCK My work is always being talked about as autobiographical, but in the beginning I insulated the autobiography with fantasy. You would have to get through all these codes that did not allow you direct access to the source material, to the subjects I was trying to comment on or protect. In some ways my [mythologies] did a disservice to my ideas, deflecting from the poetry of pure forms-like [the pattern of] my grandmother’s floor-that I encountered at home and that were beautiful. I have learned that if I create a lot of narrative, the work takes a different trajectory. The stories in my early paintings and installations needed to be told at the time I made them, but now everything has funneled back to something that’s real for me, close to myself.

FERRARIO You have described these new self-portraits as derogatory. Do you feel that because this work is mainly about yourself you don’t need to be particularly protective of it?

HANCOCK In some ways my work is very connected to comedy and tragicomedy-taking the figure of the hero and exposing not necessarily its absurdity, but its vulnerability. My superhero is brave but not invulnerable. He uses his courage to move through all the layers of viscera that constitute his humanity. Being brave is just the armor he wears; he feels an obligation, in order to move through psychological and socio-political spaces and resolve issues. This time I’m using the artist as superhero as evidence that I don’t know everything, that there is no script. I want to show that I’m not trying to cover up anything any longer.

FERRARIO It seems to me you are taking a risk that artists can only take when they reach a certain degree of mastery, when they no longer try to control the message or meaning of the work.

HANCOCK For years I was actively searching in art history and contemporary art for things that were reflections of me. I could only find my voice as a composite of many different artists. I brought all of that to the studio along with the spirit of experimentation, never knowing what the outcome would be. I’d work until the paintings felt like me, until I hit on something that felt singular, personal and scary. All of these emotions would puzzle together to form some new unnamed emotion, which was expressed in the work. But I could only put the process in motion by setting up a narrative, where I felt more in control. For ten years I’ve configured the elements in my systems in many different ways, but it got so predictable. I could always figure out the outcome. It wasn’t interesting to me any longer.

With the new work I’m going back to square one. At first it was terrifying, but then the muscle memory came back. I had to reestablish what success was in every painting. And that was an exciting place to be. Sometimes the paintings failed, and I allowed that to happen. In fact, there’s failure embedded within each of those pieces-like first it failed, then somehow I had to bring it back to life. Humility is embedded in the DNA of each of these works.

FERRARIO How do you decide what to keep and what to throw out? When you were talking about your process I was thinking about Plate of Shrimp (2012), partially because it seems to have started as a very static portrait which then exploded and became full halls of surprises.

HANCOCK Oh–that is the painting that embodies my process. And it’s funny, because that painting is about the collective unconscious. It’s about a layer of activity that binds us all. Where do I start? With the content, or the piece itself? [Laughs]

In structure, I simply wanted to make a larger version of another painting that’s in the show, As U Now Enliven a Test, but I have the inability to copy myself, so in the process of recording that central head form, it changed. And then it changed again. And it just kept doing that, until it got to a place that I thought was pretty stable. And then it changed again. In the middle of one of those changes, I thought, “Well, this painting could be a failure. I might want to just scrap it.” So I moved on to other works. And those works told me what I needed to do to Shrimp to keep it alive. It was an effort among all of the paintings. At first, Plate of Shrimp did not have enough family members. And then they were born, or came back, and gave it a new life.

In my family some people have died. My nieces and nephews are the next generation; to them we transfer the love we gave the ones who are gone. The same thing happens in my studio. You double the love and that brings one painting up to being equal to the other paintings, or even better. And that’s always an exciting thing, because then the other paintings have to play catch-up. So this constant race, this constant transferring of specialness, is the motor that keeps the studio moving in a material way, first and foremost. Then the conceptual stuff gets woven in.

FERRARIO And the meaning of Plate of Shrimp?

HANCOCK Plate of Shrimp is taken from the movie Repo Man, a punk staple from the early eighties. There’s a moment in the film in which one of the older repo men is imparting his wisdom to a younger one, Emilio Estevez. The older repo man says: “You know, kid, it’s like the collective unconscious. You ever just think of something, and then someone else will say it? Or bring it to your attention?” Emilio: “No, I’ve never heard of that concept.” Older Repo man: “Well, say, for instance, you say, ‘plate of shrimp.’ Or you think about a plate of shrimp. Well, within the next hour, someone might say ‘plate.’ Another person will say ‘shrimp.’ Or some guy might come along and say ‘plate of shrimp.'” I love that movie, I love that quote, but, also, I don’t eat shrimp. I don’t eat seafood at all. So it was also this inside joke about my own habits, but, I don’t know-I thought it was good ironic material to use as a jumping-off point for a portrait of myself.

FERRARIO It seems that there was always a sense of morality or consequences in your older mythologies: if one masturbates in a field of beautiful flowers, for instance, hundreds of hybrid plant/neanderthal creatures are born. If Torpedo Boy buys a prostitute, Legend dies. Is there any of this underlying morality in the new work?

HANCOCK In the older paintings consequences were played out within the work but didn’t necessarily enact themselves upon the viewers. It was like looking into a window, into this alternate space. The new work implicates not only me, as the author, but you as the viewer, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice to enter that space, to have a conversation with the picture. So “consequences” have moved. They’ve shifted. I think the same issues are still there: like, what’s moral? What are you willing to accept and endorse as an ethical being? But instead of things being kind of sideways in the painting, where they don’t come out, they are now projecting out, stabbing you. The performance is now bringing in the viewer. Now my canvases are creating a more active, or interactive, space.

FERRARIO And is that partially why you decided to have white walls, which is unusual for you?

HANCOCK I just wanted to cut down on all of the noise that would keep someone from dealing with the issues at hand. People had to wade through the narrative to get to the meaning. And sometimes that distance was a bit too far to traverse to get to anything that had a powerful punch. Again, if we take it back to martial arts, it’s like the quickest point between point A and point B is a straight line. It’s just an issue of focusing energies.

In this show, I have white walls and nothing on the floors. I don’t have any irregular picture planes. I made everything as traditional as possible, and within that framework, I can be as crazy or inventive or poetic as I need to be. I’m very focused, so whatever I need to be and do happens within the painting. But each work is distinct and very different. And that bespeaks the multifaceted quality of the self. We can never pin it down. I’m trying to be more truthful and I know it can’t be done with just one kind of painting, with one way of making a mark, with one way of making an image. I can’t lie about that. That is why I have made so many different kinds of pictures, and why there will be, from here on out, many different kinds of approaches.