Trenton Doyle Hancock's second solo show at James Cohan suggested that the artist is weathering his early over-exposure fairly well, but that some reassessment might be in order. At 25 Hancock was among the youngest artists ever in the Whitney Biennial (2000) and the youngest recipient of a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant. He has since appeared in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, the 'post-black' Freestyle show at The Studio Museum in Harlem and in a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston; a solo project also opened at MoCA North Miami during the Cohan Gallery show. Much ink has been dedicated to the attention Hancock has received and continues to receive, and very little of it has been anything less than flattering. Part of this may be attributed to the amount of writing that critics feel they must devote to description of Hancock's complex narrative in order for his work to make any sense to those who haven't seen it.
Hancock's precedents run from Henry Darger to Matthew Ritchie. In Hancock's case, however, much of the story has been expressed literally within the boundaries of his free-hanging wall pieces, with language meandering among a rich mix of collaged canvas, fabric and paint. His best pieces send you chasing his words, tumbling through tangled forests of gnarled trees that, while juvenile in their simple repetition and craft, create a strangely haunting effect, with a tinge of menace.
'For a Floor of Flora' is meant to act as a prequel to the artist's first show at the gallery, with a long-winded premise about a prehistoric ape-man named Homerbuctas who leaves his wife to sire half-flower children (called 'Mounds') by ejaculating on to the floor of flora referred to in the exhibition's title. The story almost hits you over the head with its reference to the male artistic ego, and its careless execution on the wall does little to move it beyond the silly, masturbatory behaviour it describes. It is like a pedantic wall tag in a museum show, but on a scale that makes it impossible to ignore. In one place, however, the distracting deluge parts for a monochromatic piece that shows how good Hancock can be. We Love You (all works 2003) is a convoluted mélange of the words in the title, in which positive and negative spaces flip-flop effortlessly, and the words give rise to larger and twisted versions of themselves. The dainty, decorative qualities of the image run up against the messiness of Hancock's technique.
A similar touch is evident in the beautiful Choir, where Hancock pushes into full colour. The combination of fake fur, fake flowers and cut canvas alludes to Mike Kelley, and fresh-squeezed lines of paint call forth Jonathan Lasker. Are these conscious, deliberate references, and if so, what end are they serving? While its combination of sloppy, almost visceral, materiality and vibrant, imaginative iconography is striking, this piece seems in many ways to embody Hancock's dance between a kind of sincere naivety and a cunning, strategic immaturity that he seems mostly unwilling to acknowledge. How do we account, for example, for the quality of draughtsmanship in Hancock's lively screen-printed wallpaper that covered two walls of the gallery, as compared with the astonishingly stiff pencil diptych Family Portrait (Mound Half and Ape Half)?
A gorgeous set of melancholic etchings in the back room made clear that Hancock has a stunning command of line weight and composition. In the nine prints on view a variety of wild animals are tamed by their sadness for the passing of the original Mound, and visually lament his death. They are among the better and more touching prints on view anywhere recently.
The duality in Hancock's work between childishness and maturity runs alongside a satisfying play between prettiness and an intentional ugliness, or crude execution. His pastel-toned wallpaper here seemed perfectly suited to a little girl's bedroom, until you recognized the severed hands - still beautifully rendered - among the flora. With time Hancock's iconography contextualizes these themes and begins to open them into some very personal territory. Hancock's Mound children, notably, all have black and white racoon-tail-striped bodies, which can be read as a quiet reference to the racial slur 'coon'. With little fanfare, the artist's contrived awkwardness and insistent immaturity can shift to become pictorial strategies of dissent that remain proudly seductive.
But taken as whole, this show seemed a bit thin. The artist himself has remarked in print that he sometimes 'can barely finish a painting before the truck comes to pick it up'. In this show the writing was on the wall, and it wasn't encouraging. There remained, however, plenty of evidence that Hancock is on to something. It seems like the time is right to take a breather and look around.
First published in Issue 76