Trenton Doyle Hancock is a multifaceted artist whose practice embraces drawing, painting, and collage as well as set design, comic books, and a huge collection of toys. The painting in question brings to the fore a fascination with text and a passionate approach to his long-standing exploration of both personal and universal narratives.
THE BELIEVER: Are we looking at an abstraction through a chain-link fence? Is it a self-portrait? Are we looking at a self-portrait through a chain-link fence?
TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK: In the case of this painting, “fence” and “portrait” may be literalizing the reading too much, although it’s hard to escape that reading when seeing the work digitally. When viewed in person, it’s hard to un-see the layers of material that hold the image together. What seems to be a fence becomes raw material, and what appears as pink veins is revealed to be the underpainting or the support. It is a painting about timing. I built it as a visual game to figure out what comes first and what comes third. As a self-portrait, it has nothing to do with local likeness and everything to do with revealing a calculative and manipulative psychology.
BLVR: There seems to be a new approach in a good portion of the works in your recent show in New York. How did you arrive at the idea of obfuscation and obliteration of subjects as we see in the painting at hand and a half dozen others in the show?
TDH: After having battled through a four-year transitional period in my studio, I found that there were a handful of tropes, colors, and forms that I could repurpose toward the new body. In order to keep the studio fresh, I stripped away the assigned ranks of these old forms. Then the process of reassigning meaning and reconfiguration began. I felt as though I was coming to understand myself differently with this body of work and that I was comfortable with not knowing things. Maybe this admittance of blank becomes embedded in the forms and contributes to the air of obfuscation you mentioned. Even when the work was entrenched in the narrative, things were inching toward a more mysterious place. With these works, I also began to use my love of textile design in a different way. I’ve been exploring the idea that patterns can form some kind of a mask or visual interference.
BLVR: So many of your works hinge on a single visual image, a self-portrait or figure, a palindrome or piece of text, but here we are presented with something on the verge of abstraction.
TDH: I see this painting as not so different from past works in the sense that I hardly think of works divorced from the continuum. Since the narrative has halted, the new works are naturally looking for a new grid to adhere to. It’s like asking what people did before Facebook. Well, there always was and always will be the need for people to create networks. My paintings are no different. They will find ways to band together and to identify the whole. After finishing forty or so images, I can see that this new connective tissue has come in the form of “difference.” There are probably four distinct approaches to painting in my current body, but I’m aware of that and I’m exploiting that. From those four distinct approaches, I combine methodologies to spawn new approaches. I’m actively trying to invent new ways to express psychological pressure, and I’ve found that the best way to do that is to cannibalize and reconfigure bits of myself. To speed up the process, I will periodically introduce something completely foreign and jarring into the experiment. This insures forward movement in the studio.
BLVR: Language plays a huge role in your work. What were you reading when you made this painting? If you weren’t reading anything specific, what were you listening to?
TDH: I don’t know how to read yet. I was listening to a mix on my iTunes called “melancholy ’80s music.” It comprises pop songs with certain sad chords, by Phil Collins, the Motels, Billy Joel, Sheena Easton, etc. It would cycle through about thirty songs and then I would put on a mix called, simply, “1988.” This one was mostly R&B slow jams as I remember them from television shows such as Video Vibrations and Soft Notes.
BLVR: Can you elaborate on the divide you’ve created here between the viewer and the amorphous, floating bone structure in this painting?
TDH: The effect I was looking to achieve in this painting was the impossible illusion of interlocking systems; therefore there was no room for quick marks or brushy insurance. I called on my knowledge as a printmaker to separate the painting’s layers in my mind, and then I created a guideline to follow. I came up with five moves to complete the painting. Two more moves were added at the end of the process. First I painted the canvas pink with the color graded from the edges to a dark rose color in the middle. Secondly, I placed the black-speckled/raw canvas fence lace over the pink. This created an even grid pattern for me to follow. Thirdly, I created individual black canvas shapes that corresponded to the pink tile shapes. I pinned these into each cubicle, because there’s still two more steps to subject the shapes to before they can be glued into place. Once all of the black shapes were pinned, I painted into the black ground with white line and tone to create the amorphous “bone cage.” At this point, I can start to tell where the edges of the figure are and can visualize where the pink will fall into place. After all of the bones were painted in, I took a red pencil and began to draw places where I wanted to see pink veins. After that was done, I unpinned each individual shape and cut the veins out with an X-Acto knife. I would glue the pieces down immediately after they were cut out. This created a new rhythm in the process of cutting and precise gluing. What slowly began to unfold before my eyes was an illusion of three different interwoven motifs. I had a toy sitting with me the whole time called a “Keepon.” This lemon-colored toy is a learning tool for autistic children who can’t discern emotion. Looking like two stacked tennis balls, the electronic Keepon has a rudimentary nose and eyes and he mimics your movements by using sensor technology. He danced as I painted and became sort of a studio pet. With the Keepon in my field of vision, I imagined him inside the work. As a test, I pinned up yellow pieces of canvas. The painting immediately took on a new personality.
BLVR: The painting definitely feels like an anomaly, not just within this recent group of works but in your entire oeuvre. When single works make a radical departure, do you instantly recognize this in the studio? Do you embrace that? Or does the world look forward to Trent Hancock’s “Trent Hancocks,” a group of works secreted away because they don’t fit the mold?
TDH: The funny thing is that I always recognize those works as special, and I generally keep them in my collection. These pieces usually scare me, embarrass me, or emotionally blindside me. Such works are the key to either the next body of work or even three bodies of work down the road. This revelation usually happens after living with a work for a few years, but I’ve had things gestate for much longer periods. With this current body, things I made as an undergraduate are finally making sense now. I think it’s because undergrad was the last time I wasn’t responsible for the “master narrative.” There was a looseness to my old work that I obviously missed, and I’m naturally swinging back that way. It’s really hard for me to say which current works will lead to large epiphanies. I think I’ll have a perspective on this work in the next six months, after I’ve made more things.
BLVR: Your works from the past often re-created a character of your devising in the midst of some unraveling or narrative arc; these newer works seem to have a distinctly autobiographical nature. Which is closer to the real man: the comic-book characters of yore, or the newer works, often emblazoned with “I am TDH”?
TDH: I am both equally. This new work could not happen if I hadn’t seen the previous body to its natural end. There was necessity then just as the new works fill a need. The reference to the self, i.e., my signature carved into the facade, is a way to turn myself into a character. The new works oscillate between depicting “the actual artist that made and endorsed the painting” and the imagined Trenton Doyle Hancock, who is the creator of [a self-created mythology of] mounds and vegans. The latter is obviously more flexible and resilient and is subject to pictorial tortures. I guess I’m actively trying to figure out which one of these selves is actually me. It’s like chasing your tail. On the other hand, the signature stamps the work and places it in the now. It’s an assertion of being there and witnessing something cumulative. It’s an acknowledgment of ownership and the responsibilities that come along with it.