“Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing” at The Studio Museum in Harlem

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Trenton Doyle Hancock, . . . And Then It All Came Back To Me (2011), mixed media on paper, 9″ x 8″; courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

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Philip Guston has a lot to answer for—that is, if an artist is to be held responsible for the influence his work has on subsequent generations. After establishing himself as a Social Realist by way of de Chirico, Guston gained success for abstractions, at once tender and tenacious, that combined Monet and Mondrian with nary a seam. It was, however, the late-style turnaround, and the hubbub initially surrounding it, that made Guston an art world touchstone—what with those lumpish, cartoon-like images of disembodied limbs, cyclopean heads, bottles of booze, and the KKK. That the pictures were hard-won and powered by a profound respect for tradition—Masaccio and Giotto were heroes—has been a lesson lost on (or ignored by) many of his followers. Remember the brief but influential vogue for “Bad Painting” in the 1980s? Guston was its primary avatar. Any painter indulging in gimpy figuration, sloppy brushwork, and unconsidered compositions cited him as inspiration. There are better legacies for an artist.

“Few artists, save Philip Guston,” I wrote in my notebook upon entering “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing,”“have dedicated themselves as emphatically to the color pink as TDH.” A pink wave has, in fact, been painted along the bottom of the wall lining the Studio Museum’s sizable main gallery, and pink punctuates Hancock’s works-on-paper, which are largely black-and-white, with notable regularity. His work features a motley cast of cartoonish grotesques, not least a tuberous and swollen self-portrait, and points to an interest in the more outré precincts of contemporary comics. A glancing knowledge of Hieronymus Bosch is evident as well. All of this would be enough to assume that Hancock might count himself a Guston fan. Confirmation came with Step and Screw, a series of thirty drawings in which the Hancock doppelgänger has a slapstick encounter with Guston’s monolithic Klansmen; it also lists details of Guston’s life directly on the surfaces. Need more proof? The following sentiment can be gleaned from an installation of one-off drawings nearby: “Like Guston but blacker and worse.”

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Trenton Doyle Hancock, Faster (2006), acrylic and mixed media on paper; courtesy the artist and Zang Collection, London

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Given the fuzzy standards by which mainstream art abides, Hancock’s scribbled mot shouldn’t be mistaken for self-criticism. Self-aggrandizement is more like it, and who’s to say that’s a bad thing? Chutzpah is an integral component of an artist’s creative DNA. The notion that, yes, the world needs yet another thing to contemplate takes some moxie. But chutzpah unredeemed by aesthetic weight—that elusive mix of gravitas and play, mystery and mastery—isn’t enough. Hancock’s brio and initiative are self-evident, but is the work as undeniable and true as that of Guston or Bosch? “A visit to [Hancock’s] studio,” Bill Arning, the Director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, writes in the catalogue, “reminds us of an earlier ethos in which artists were supposed to be visionaries, rather than businessmen.” Hancock’s world—an over-the-top mythos devoted to gluttony, scatology and, less so, sex—qualifies as a “vision,” absolutely. But is it a vision the rest of us are inclined, let alone invited, to participate in?

“Skin and Bones” features halting drawings of Torpedoboy, a superhero dreamed up by a ten-year old Hancock, absurdist comic strips done not too many years later, and a suite of drawings based on photographs of missing children appropriated from milk cartons—a nod to the outsider artist Henry Darger, whose pedophiliac fantasies are another Hancock influence. A sense of stylistic trajectory, then, is provided, but doesn’t altogether illuminate the mature work. Of course, “mature” is used advisedly here. A pivotal component of the Hancockian gestalt is an unapologetic embrace of adolescence. Dutiful attention paid to bodily functions (vomiting is a leit-motif); post-apocalyptic scenarios and sentiments (“We done all we could/And none of it’s good); and a touch that is grubby, insistent, and taken with gross minutiae make Hancock’s work, as a friend observed, “boy’s art.” “Mini-revolutions” of the self, to use Hancock’s own terminology, are paramount. Given its excessive nature and narrow purview, Hancock’s work, particularly when he’s mixing media, is more diverting seen on a piecemeal basis. A body can stand only so much arrant ickiness.

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Installation of “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing”; courtesy The Studio Museum in Harlem

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Perhaps if the exhibition were guided by a more discerning curatorial hand, we’d be inclined to cut Hancock’s fantasies some slack. As it is, “Skin and Bones” will likely be off-putting for those not familiar with the installation aesthetic and run-of-the-mill for those who are. There’s a lot of stuff all over the place at the Studio Museum. Myriad and not always related pieces do battle with ersatz graffiti (and each other) in a higgledy-piggledy bid for attention. There’s the aforementioned pink wave, as well as a hasty wall decoration that clashes with the myriad works displayed upon it, discarded objects scrawled with urinating superheroes, and words, words, words—scrawled on the drawings, traversing the walls, everywhere. Verbiage, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, is the last refuge of an unconvinced draftsman. Hancock’s stream of written patter can be traced to a foundation in cartoons, but for a stylist as individual as this one, an abundance of cryptic literary flourishes is enough to make one think that he harbors some doubts about the visual efficacy of his art. Whether Hancock has, artistically speaking, too much or not enough meat on his skin and bones is an argument worth considering. Would that the work itself waylaid such mooting.

© 2015 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2015 edition of The New Criterion.

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