Category Archives: Drawing

“M.C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions” at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), lithograph, 12-1/2 x 8-1/2″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Is it permissible, at this late date, to prefer the art of Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898–1972) to that of Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, his contemporaries in chronology if not historical standing? At the entrance to “M. C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions,” a wall label tells us that, during his lifetime, the Dutch draftsman and printmaker was “underappreciated by much of the mainstream art world.” As a student, I distinctly remember one of my instructors pooh-poohing Escher, waving his hands and wiggling his fingers to suggest otherworldly hokum. Clearly, here was an artist to be held at a distance. Escher’s mass popularity, an easy mark for the cultivated few, didn’t help. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts makes a point of how Escher is esteemed by “mathematicians, crystallographers, and psychologists,” as well as “experts in fields that range from design to aerospace.” Everybody, that is, except artists. Encomiums to Escher accompany the work on display. Among those extolling his virtues are chefs, poets, astronauts, scientists, communications strategists, and musicians both classical (the cellist Yo-Yo Ma) and not (the proto-punk Ian Hunter). “From dorm-room posters to book jackets,” Escher’s art “has delighted millions of people around the world.”

If the logjam of pedestrians throughout “Infinite Dimensions” is an indication, visitors to the MFA are taking delight as well. For Ronni Baer, the William and Ann Elfers Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of Europe, Escher was a harder sell. She’s a recent convert, if a seemingly recalcitrant one. In an interview with the local public radio affiliate, Baer ad- mitted she once “disdained” Escher, but now she finds that his pictorial obsessions evince “signs of a real artist.” Signs are one thing, achievement another, and it’s worth mulling how much name recognition was a factor in mounting the show. A lot, I would think, though Escher’s notoriety is of a different sort than that of Takashi Murakami, who is the subject of “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics; A Collaboration with Nobuo

Tsuji and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” a concurrent exhibition at the MFA. Escher achieved gradual renown through the canny deployment of puzzle-like fantasies, Murakami by exploiting an arts establishment that considers the lowest common denominator a badge of courage. Sometimes art is audience-driven; at other times it drives the audience. Not all popular artists are created equal.

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M.C. Escher, Reptiles (1943), lithograph, 13 x 15-1/4″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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In our post-Warholian age, celebrity isn’t the bugaboo it once was, but it’s worth pondering if Escher’s renown distinguishes itself by being—how does one put it, exactly?— commonsensical. In a 2015 interview, Mickey Piller, the former curator of Escher in Het Paleis, a museum located in The Hague, pointed to an insular art world as one factor determining Escher’s appeal. Compared to errant splatters of paint, mute blocks of steel and concrete, and heady admixtures of this, that, and the other thing, who wouldn’t prefer immaculately limned dreamscapes in which the eye is not only entertained and perplexed, but acknowledged? Escher’s work “seemed simple and easy to understand.” The days of dismissing Escher as middle-brow entertainment—the province of stoners, video-game enthusiasts, and science nerds—are on the wane. Blame a value-free culture, if you like, but also credit the march of time, which provides the distance to approach certain artists with a sobriety that may not have been forthcoming during their lifetimes. Yesterday’s snobbery might well be concealing today’s addition to the canon.

Born in Leeuwarden, a city in the north of Holland, Escher was the fifth son of a well-to-do civil engineer. A sickly youth, “Mauk”—Escher’s family nickname—proved an iffy student, excelling only at mathematics. He eventually attended the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, where an abortive go at architecture led to more fruitful studies in the decorative arts. Notwithstanding the discernible influence of his teacher, the graphic artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, Escher didn’t blossom as an artist until he traveled through Italy and Spain in 1922. A trip to the Alhambra, with its Moorish architecture and elaborate tile work, proved decisive. Escher settled in Rome for thirteen years, leaving only when Mussolini’s rule made itself felt on the most apolitical of men. A return to the Alhambra—“the richest source of inspiration I have ever tapped”—intensified Escher’s self-described “mania” for tessellated patterning. The interlocking back and forth of pictorial space defined the work from there on out, albeit cast with a dour Symbolism that is nothing if not northern European in temper. (Think Dürer and Bosch; Van Eyck and Klee.) In the 1950s, Escher became a favorite of mathematicians, who gleaned a kindred spirit within the exacting incongruities that gave structure to the imagery. The work’s trippy elasticity found a new group of admirers in the generation formed by the mind-expanding excesses of the 1960s.

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M.C. Escher, Order and Chaos (1950), lithograph, 11 x 11″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Escher, in other words, became hip. Mick Jagger sought his talents for a Rolling Stones album cover. Stanley Kubrick asked Escher to help design a “fourth dimensional film,” presumably 2001: A Space Odyssey. Escher demurred on both counts, finding, perhaps, that the pull of his topsy-turvy world proved absorbing enough. Since then, images like Relativity (1953), with its Piranesi-like play of perspective, and the self-generating conundrum that is Drawing Hands (1948) have seeped into the common culture. What’s surprising about “Infinite Dimensions” is how familiarity breeds not contempt but the freedom to focus on aspects other than Escher’s clever machinations of image and space. His touch, especially in the lithographs, rewards close attention. Rarely has a crayon been manipulated with such tender diligence. Yes, tender: the surfaces of Contrast (Order and Chaos) (1950) and the warp-and-weft illusionism of Hand with a Reflecting Sphere (1935) have an underplayed sensuality that offers recompense for the hermetic nature of Escher’s work. Who knows? Perhaps Escher will be adopted by the art world as an outsider—a loner ineluctably caught in a web of his own distractions. Stranger things have happened. In the meantime, “Infinite Dimensions” is a welcome exception to the run-of-the-mill iterations of our oh-so-tired and increasingly politicized status quo.

This review was originally published in the April 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

© 2018 Mario Naves

Catalogue Essay Accompanying “Half Human”, a group exhibition at The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center

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Installation shot of “Half Human”, featuring works by (from left to right) Stephanie Hightower, Pat Lay, Laura Dodson and Artemis Alcalay; photo courtesy Nikos Seferiadis

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Few questions are as persistent—or frustrating—than those surrounding the meaning of what it is, exactly, to be human. Given the run of opinions and theories over the span of history, the human has proven a subject prone to perpetual re-definition. Philosophers, politicians and religious leaders have attempted to interpret human nature and, in more than a few cases, codify it–sometimes for salutary purposes, sometimes not. If anything is constant about the “human”, it is inherent unpredictability, a slipperiness of need and ambition.

As we continue into the twenty-first century, how is the world we helped to shape shaping us? Every artist–at least, any artist worth her salt–works in response to the surrounding culture, if in ways that are closer to osmosis than reportage. Historical context doesn’t determine aesthetic worth, but it would be foolhardy to deny its influence. There is no escaping our self-awareness as a species. The artists featured in “Half Human” elaborate upon this predicament in ways that reaffirm its primacy.

The sculptures and assemblages of Pat Lay make a point of how technology is transforming the collective body and mind: her totemic visages combine the mechanical and the iconic, suggesting a dystopia that is less futuristic than we might like to admit. Diyan Achjadi’s works-on-paper, in contrast, encompass the natural world: her kaleidoscopic amalgams of East, West and cultures yet to be imagined offer stages in which myth and magic are allowed a fierce independence.

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Diyan Achjadi, Sinking (2018), gouache, ink and graphite on cut Kozuke paper, approximately 60 x 42″; courtesy the artist

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The art of Maria de los Angeles transforms biography–in this case, that of a child born to Mexican immigrants–into a rambunctious brand of agit-prop that takes significant (and surprising) forays into fashion. De Los Angeles looks to German Expressionism for inspiration, as does Marsha Gold Gayer, whose drawings are as nuanced as they are mordant. Working from the live model, Gayer uncovers a discomfiting eroticism within her taxonomies of likeness, body-type and mark-making.

The body–or, rather, its limitations–figures prominently in the photographs and assemblages of Artemis Alcalay. Disassociation is her leitmotif, and Alcalay divines an almost counterintuitive tenacity of spirit within weathered textures and starkly configured compositions. Divination of a different sort marks the photographic tableaux of Laura Dodson, in which the malleability of memory is elaborated upon with ghostly specificity. In Dodson’s art, narrative structures arise from the promiscuous convergence of the documentary and the invented.

The puzzle-like compositions of Stephanie Hightower–schematic overlays of iconographs and panoramic vistas–are rebuses that promise no ready answer. Hightower’s paintings underscore the nature of this exhibition’s thesis, suggesting that an integral component of the human is its ability to not only brook contradiction, but to welcome it. In this way, “Half Human” posits an optimism without which we are not human at all.

© 2017 Mario Naves

The online catalogue for “Half Human” can be found here.

“Half Human” @ The Clemente

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Marsha Gold Gayer, Philip’s Head and Feet (2010), charcoal and pastel on paper, 11-1/2 x 9″

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I’m pleased to announce “Half Human”, a group exhibition I’ve curated for The Clemente Soto Velez and Cultural and Education Center on The Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“Few questions have proved as persistent—or as frustrating—than those that surround the meaning of what it is, exactly, to be human,” I write in the essay included in the accompanying online catalogue. The artists featured in “Half Human”–Diyan Achjadi, Laura Dodson, Pat Lay, Maria de los Angeles, Artemis Alcalay, Marsha Gold Gayer and Stephanie Hightower–elaborate upon this predicament in ways that reaffirm its primacy.

The opening reception takes place on Saturday, March 3rd, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. The exhibition continues until April 6th.

Artist’s Talk @ Five Myles

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Installation of “Bete Noire” at Five Myles

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I’m pleased to announce that I will be moderating an artist’s panel to be held in conjunction with “Bete Noire“, the group show currently on display at Five Myles, the exhibition and performance space located in Crown Heights.

The event will be held on Sunday, December 17th at 4:00 p.m. Directions on how to get to Five Myles can be found here. Please bear in mind that there may be service changes in subway service during the weekend.

Please join us for what promises to be a lively conversation!

Catalogue essay accompanying “Bête Noire”, a group exhibition at Five Myles

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Nancy Grimes, Custody (2017), oil on linen, 16 x 32″; courtesy the artist

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When asked to participate in an exhibition centered on the theme of “bête noire”, not a few of the invited artists scratched their heads and furrowed their brows. At least, that seemed to be the gist of their responses.

A French literary trope connoting a person or object that is intensely disagreeable and to be strenuously avoided? What right-minded person would want to be lumped under that rubric? The emphasis of the phrase, however, is as much on degree as substance: intensity and strenuousness figure prominently. There are plenty of things that are irksome, but few of them call to us with something like passion. That damned thing won’t let me go and I insist on holding onto it. That’s the rub of bête noire and why it persists as a vital bit of phrase-making. This vexing quality pervades the work of the artists featured in “Bête Noire”; animates it, too.

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Natasha Hesketh, Portrait of What Is Not Being Said (2016), acrylic on paper, 24 x 18″; courtesy the artist

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How these paintings, photographs and sculptures embody the notion of “bête noire” is as idiosyncratic as the visions informing them. Contradictions are abundant. The digitally manipulated dreamscapes of Laura Dodson mull the intransigence of memory and, along with it, the disappointments of nostalgia. The piecemeal and seemingly dehumanizing nature of contemporary relationships are deftly negotiated in the works-on-paper of Natasha Hesketh. Thomas Nozkowski’s off-kilter abstractions embody sharply felt if distinctly occluded encapsulations of lived experience. David Hornung’s ramshackle iconography–at once, homespun and hieratic–serves as a conduit for a dry and whimsical poetry. Matthew Blackwell and his revolving band of cartoonish grotesques are less given to reverie than a frantic and sometimes enraged form of slapstick.

Comedy filters through the work of more than a few of these artists. A mordant wit can be divined in the vases of Elisa D’Arrigo–gnarled vessels that admit to a balletically contrived pathos. Nancy Cohen’s hobbled amalgamations of biomorphic form and utilitarian purpose are charged with tender irony. Industrial means endow Fara’h Salehi’s sculptures of insect life with a streamlined efficiency that doesn’t waylay biological specificity. Specificity is also Loren Munk’s domain, albeit transferred to the art world, in which the ebb-and-flow of history is inventoried with unyielding diligence and chromatic punch.

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Nancy Cohen, Two-Step (2015), glass, metal, rubber, wire and handmade paper, 22 x 22 x 10″; courtesy the artist

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Other images are moody and mysterious, indicative of nothing so much as the limits of understanding. Stephanie Hightower’s paintings create an enigmatic patience game from diagrammatical overlays of topographical shapes, silhouettes, and fleeting allusions to history. Lee Tribe’s totemic effigies, whether rendered in steel or charcoal, evince a temperament alternately driven by the heroic and the haunting. The myriad and often unsettling complications of family are rendered with luminous clarity in the tableaux of Nancy Grimes.

A laundry list of artists only goes so far in elaborating the overriding theme of a given exhibition. The true test comes with how the works themselves engender and underline surprising commonalities, unbridgeable peculiarities, and nagging attractions. The juxtapositions set out in “Bête Noire” are multivalent, not a little irksome, stubbornly put forth, and undeniable in their integrity. The puzzlement is yours for the taking.

© 2017 Mario Naves

 

 

 

“Bête Noire” curated by Mario Naves @ Five Myles

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Invitation artwork: David Hornung, A View of Monuments (2017), matte acrylic and oil, 40 x 40: courtesy the artist

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I’m pleased to announce “Bête Noire”, a group exhibition I’ve curated for Five Myles, an exhibition and performance space located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

“There are plenty of things that are irksome,” I write in the essay accompanying the exhibition, “but few of them call to us with something like passion. That damned thing won’t let me go and I insist on holding onto it. That’s the rub of bête noire and why it persists as a vital bit of phrase-making. This vexing quality pervades the work of the artists featured in “Bête Noire”; animates it, too.”

You can read the entire essay in the online catalogue accompanying the show.

The reception will take place on Saturday, November 11th, between 5:00-8:00 p.m.

The exhibition will run until December 17th. For information please check the Five Myles website.

“Mario Naves: Drawings from Venice” at Rosenberg Gallery, Hofstra University

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After Titian (The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence) (2017), graphite on paper, 24 x 18″

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I’m pleased to announce that a recent spate of drawings–my first in 30 years!–will be on display at the Rosenberg Gallery at Hofstra University. These works-on-paper were done during a stay in Italy this past summer while teaching for Pratt In Venice, an invaluable program instituted and organized by the art historian Diana Gisolfi.

Taking inspiration from direct contact with masterworks of Western art, seen both in museums and in situ at venues like the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, the Arena Chapel and the Palazzo Ducale, I transcribed paintings by Giotto, Titian, Giorgione, Tiepolo, Giovanni Bellini and others.

When asked to write about the work, I stated that “the pictorial, symbolic and narrative richness of Old Master painting is dizzying. Making studies of a specific painting–say, Tintoretto’s Il Paradiso (1588-92)–is an attempt at understanding what makes a composition tick, as well as (fingers crossed) tapping into the magic and majesty of its vision.”

Fingers crossed, indeed!

The exhibition opens on October 30th and continues until November 29th. Information about Rosenberg Gallery can be found here. The opening will take place on Monday, October 30th, at 2:00 p.m.

© 2017 Mario Naves

“World War I and The Visual Arts” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Harry Ryle Hopps, Destroy This Mad Brute (1917), color lithograph, 41 x 27-1/4″; Collection of Mary Ellen Meehan/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Propaganda elides subtlety. Bluntness is the point: to make expressly clear the message its makers—whether it be a government, political party, or individual—want to impart to the viewer. Which isn’t to suggest that sophistication and craft, often of a high level, don’t figure into propaganda. At the entrance to “World War I and the Visual Arts,” museum visitors encounter Destroy This Mad Brute (1917), a recruitment poster for the U.S. Army designed by Harry Ryle Hopps. As a means of instilling patriotic fervor, Hopps’s image is a far cry from the stern gravitas of Uncle Sam. A slavering gorilla wearing a Kaiser hat charges onto the American shoreline. In its right arm, this proto–King Kong wields a bloodied club that reads “Kultur”; in its left, it holds a writhing, topless woman. The latter is an allusion to Germany’s 1914 invasion—or, as it came to be known, “rape”—of Belgium. One doesn’t have to be a student of history to glean the intent of Hopps’s image: aggression is monstrous. As an argument, it doesn’t carry a lot of nuance, but the flair with which it is embodied is effective and, testament to a job well done, memorable.

Dramatics for the sake of political import is par for the course when it comes to propaganda, particularly during wartime. Jennifer Farrell, an Associate Curator in the Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints, lines the hallway directly outside the exhibition with a run of additional posters from the United States, Russia, France, Italy, and the “mad brute” itself, Germany. Fritz Erler, a painter and designer with Symbolist tendencies, worked on behalf of the German Empire in creating Help us win—buy war bonds! (1916), a stoic portrayal of a soldier surrounded by arabesques of barbed wire. History has bestowed its own ironies on this decidedly non-Aryan visage, especially given that Erler became an artist favored by the Third Reich. (He would, in fact, paint a portrait of the Führer some fifteen years later.) One of the discomfiting aspects of the exhibition is how vividly it encapsulates history, bringing along with it a concomitant sense of fervor, confusion, and righteousness. That it does so with compelling understatement is a credit to Farrell’s selectivity and focus.

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Fritz Erler, Help us win–buy war bonds! (1916), color lithograph, 24-7/8 x 19-3/4″; Collection of Mary Ellen Meehan/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Met is playing up the stellar array of artists featured in “World War I and the Visual Arts,” most of whom are inextricably linked with The War To End All Wars. Expressionism was, after all, bolstered and Die Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity) born of its catastrophes. An exhibition such as this is inconceivable without the work of Kathe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Otto Dix, all of whom make plain their disaffection. Fernand Léger, who served in the Engineer Corps of the French army, may have observed that “trench warfare is full of small murders,” but he was impressed by the “dazzling” efficiency of high-tech warfare. The Italian Futurist Gino Severini was similarly taken with “the marvelous mechanical forms” of modern arms, as was the more equivocal Wyndham Lewis, the British Vorticist, who, unlike Severini, served in the war. There are artists whose inclusion is less expected. George Bellows is known for many things, but War Series (1918), a suite of often gruesome lithographs, isn’t one of them. Then there’s John Singer Sargent, Pierre Bonnard, and the perpetually sunny Raoul Dufy, the latter of whom celebrated the end of hostilities with a lithograph done for Le Mot, a journal published by a friend, the novelist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

The “visual” nature of the exhibition extends considerably beyond the Fine Arts. Commercial artists figure significantly at the Met; so do, to a lesser extent, industrial designers. Three-dimensional objects are in short supply; those that are included—an assortment of helmets that channel medieval precedent and a tattered gas mask from France—are arresting, not least because they seem alarmingly primitive. An array of medals commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania (Germany), America the Avenger (France), and the barbarism of Kaiser Wilhelm (the United States) are the lone sculptural inclusions. Pictures predominate. Documentary photos pepper “World War I and the Visual Arts” with terse clarity, whether they be aerial views of war-torn France by Edward Steichen (who pioneered surveillance techniques as the Chief of the Photographic Section of the American Expeditionary) or the haunting image by an unknown photographer of Londoners observing two minutes of silence on Armistice Day, 1919. Additional items include textiles, periodicals, montages, a pop-up children’s book (After the Victory), and trading cards published by the American Tobacco Company. A series of Russian postcards stand out for their starkly contrived imagery and subject matter: women in wartime, seen embodying such virtues as “iron discipline” and “precision, accuracy, and prompt fulfillment of order.”

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Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain (November 1917), (1924), etching and aquatint on paper, 35.5 x 47.7 cm.; Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Otto Dix’s The War (1924), a series of fifty-one etchings, occupies an entire wall of the show and is the rare occasion when a minor artist earns a star turn. Seen on a piecemeal basis, Dix’s paintings provide a chilly dissection of life during the Weimar Republic; seen en masse, their neurasthenia wears quickly. As a printmaker, however, Dix is on more solid footing because his skills as a draftsman and tonalist evince more grit and imagination than when putting brush to canvas. Taking clear inspiration from Goya’s The Disasters of War, Dix’s etchings embrace the grotesque, sometimes to cartoonish extremes, and indulge in a moral rage that glints with bilious black humor. Dix’s masterful handling of the medium brings unseemly beauty to depictions of bodies—whether they be dead, exploited, or disfigured. George Grosz’s drawings, typically the standard-bearer for bitterness of this sort, are tinker-toys in comparison. Dix’s misanthropy is both his gift and greatest liability, but The War occasionally admits to the elegiac. Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain (November 1917) (1924), a depiction of innumerable corpses lying in disarray on the battlefield, is both a mockery of the surrounding landscape and its cruel apotheosis. It’s an image very much in sync with the strong emotions spurred by “World War I and The Visual Arts.”

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the October 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

Again, with the Rabbits

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I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine has been included in Sideshow Gallery’s annual floor-to-ceiling extravaganza. The exhibition is up until the end of February.

“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.