An Ingenue's Hues and How to Use Cutty Black Shoes is the title of painter Trenton Doyle Hancock's new exhibition at Shulamit Nazarian Gallery, but the phrase's dark whimsy and prosaic flourish set the tone for the entire experience. Visually, Hancock engineers a rough-edged mashup of graphics, comics and illustration styles with a juicy abstract expressionist aesthetic. This he deploys in chronicling the ongoing adventures of (mostly) fictional characters inhabiting the Moundverse — a parallel yet all-too-familiar world of the artist's own imagination.
The storylines, like the exuberantly colorful and spatially prismatic paintings, are self-contained and complex, and can be difficult to get a handle on straightaway; even an hourlong, reading-based lecture from the artist before the opening-night reception, while evocative, atmospheric, academic, was still a bit hard to wrangle. But not to worry. Again like the work itself, the key to the full depth of the Trenton Doyle Hancock experience does not necessarily lie in the perfect understanding of the Moundverse’s inner workings — but more simply in an intuitive, liminal acceptance of its existence. Like any new universe, you get to know it by just spending time there and having a good look around.
The exhibition is anchored in a way by a suite of large, illustrated novel–format drawings. These are both pages from the books and complete works in themselves, and the included examples are curated to best explicate the current state of affairs in the Moundverse. The paintings and installation elements that occupy the main gallery range from the mural-size to the intimate; each singles out certain elements of the story, such as individual characters or retold episodes from the Moundverse history.
Hancock's work is heavily influenced by and actually begun during the artist’s own childhood in Paris, Texas, but his influences cannot be reduced to comic books and youthful fantasies. In the works on display, we clearly see the influence of figures like Philip Guston in terms of the strategy of inventing himself as a character in his own play; in fact, one painting directly quotes Guston’s famous hooded man. And there is also an Outsider-style aesthetic in Hancock’s use of found materials embedded in the work, and his eccentric, folkloric-inflected way of rendering the figure. There are also examples of stylish, magical and empowered Afrofuturist heroines, the pattern-motif of Damien Hirst–esque circle paintings, and even a bit of those old-school Murakami Superflat nurses.
With elements of superheros and classic mythology, across the array of creation stories, battles and ascensions, figures like the artist’s alter-ego TorpedoBoy and the maternal being Undom Endgle, as well as hybrid-souled Bringbacks and villainous Vegans, enact cosmological narratives of adventure and protection. It is magical and always at all times perfectly clear that these are allegories for coping with the negativity and ugliness present in our all-too-real world of racism and danger.