Installation view of “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Something American” at James Cohan Gallery

 

NEW PAINTINGS by Trenton Doyle Hancock collapse two worlds, bringing together Torpedo Boy, the artist’s Black superhero character and alter ego, and one of the cartoonish, hooded Klansmen figures from the work of Philip Guston (1913-1980). The images reflect the personal journey and radical autobiography of Hancock whose 25-year practice is based on an invented universe entirely under his control and his desire to confront the outside world and the unwieldy realities of race, justice, American identity, and cultural expression.

“It started as a one liner. Just like, what if? Like, what if my character met with this character? It became this idea of the confrontation of my Black superhero with the Ku Klux Klan. The kind of grandfather character in my artistic practice, you know, a character I’ve always looked up to is Philip Guston. Being a Jewish Canadian/American in the early 20th century, his family came up against the Klan often. He started painting them in a way to turn them into buffoons and take their power away from them,” Houston-based Hancock said in a new exhibition video (below).

“I feel like my character Torpedo Boy has gone through a similar kind of metamorphoses over time and it would only make sense that my avatar and I think Philip Guston’s, I would describe it as one of his avatars, would meet up.”

Hancock’s work is on view at James Cohan in New York. The exhibition spans two gallery locations, presenting the new paintings of his avatar and Guston’s, as well as the second chapter of “Trenton Doyle Hancock Presents The Moundverse,” the artist’s ongoing graphic novel.

Titled “Something American,” the exhibition coincides with a national uproar surrounding a long-awaited Guston retrospective that has been postponed over concerns about the late artist’s Ku Klux Klan figures. Dating back to the 1930s, Guston invoked the characters as a political statement referencing his family history and Jewish background and a vehicle for exploring America’s history of white supremacy with a degree of levity. The Guston exhibition was expected to feature 125 paintings and 70 drawings, including “a dazzling array of small panel paintings made in 1968–1972 as Guston was developing his new vocabulary of hoods, books, bricks, and shoes,” as the show’s description notes.

“It started as a one liner. Just like, what if? Like, what if my character met with this character? It became this idea of the confrontation of my Black superhero with the Ku Klux Klan.” — Trenton Doyle Hancock


TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “Schlep and Screw, Knowledge Rental Pawn Exchange Service,” 2017 (acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 60 x 60 x 6 inches / 152.4 x 152.4 x 15.2 cm). | © Trenton Doyle Hancock, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 

“Philip Guston Now” was originally slated to open in June (in the middle of the pandemic) at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C., and has been further pushed back to 2024, in the wake of the racial justice protests that swept across the nation in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.

The four museums hosting the exhibition—NGA; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Tate Modern in London—issued a statement about the delay in late September. Their hesitation appears to stem from concern about the public’s perception and understanding of the images. Would visitors get the context, the artist’s perspective and intent?

The institutions said they were postponing the exhibition “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”

The statement continued: “We recognize that the world we live in is very different from the one in which we first began to collaborate on this project five years ago. The racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world, in addition to challenges of a global health crisis, have led us to pause.”

The decision to pause the exhibition prompted an open letter from artists, curators, and scholars, including Darby English, Julie Mehretu, Fred Moten, Adrian Piper, Martin Puryear, and Lorna Simpson, demanding the exhibition be reinstated. Nearly 100 originally signed the document. The letter has since attracted more than 2,500 signatures and counting. Media coverage has been robust. Since Sept. 24, the New York Times has written four articles about the situation: announcing the postponement, following up to report that is has “divided the art world,” explaining why is has “provoked such furor and passion,” and agreeing with the signatories, declaring the exhibition “should be reinstated.”

Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, said she was “saddened” by the delay. She issued a statement about the origins and content of her father’s work via the Guston Foundation.

“Half a century ago, my father made a body of work that shocked the art world. Not only had he violated the canon of what a noted abstract artist should be painting at a time of particularly doctrinaire art criticism, but he dared to hold up a mirror to white America, exposing the banality of evil and the systemic racism we are still struggling to confront today,” Mayer said.

“In these paintings, cartoonish hooded figures evoke the Ku Klux Klan. They plan, they plot, they ride around in cars smoking cigars. We never see their acts of hatred. We never know what is in their minds. But it is clear that they are us. Our denial, our concealment. They are even the artist, as the most well-known work of this series makes clear. My father dared to unveil white culpability, our shared role in allowing the racist terror that he had witnessed since boyhood, when the Klan marched openly by the thousands in the streets of Los Angeles. As poor Jewish immigrants, his family fled extermination in the Ukraine. He understood what hatred was. It was the subject of his earliest works.”

“In these paintings, cartoonish hooded figures evoke the Ku Klux Klan. They plan, they plot, they ride around in cars smoking cigars. We never see their acts of hatred. We never know what is in their minds. But it is clear that they are us. Our denial, our concealment. They are even the artist, as the most well-known work of this series makes clear.”
— Musa Mayer, Philip Guston’s Daughter


Installation view of “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Something American,” James Cohan Gallery, New York, N.Y., Sept. 17-Oct. 17, 2020. | Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 

WHILE THE LONG-PLANNED Gustin exhibition is on hold, Hancock’s Guston characters, which he has evoked and engaged with for years, are being shown. A few appeared in his massive “Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass” exhibition at MASS MoCA last year. Also in 2019, Hancock presented “Epidemic! Presents: Step and Screw!” at the Menil Collection in Houston. The series of 30 illustrations and accompanying text was displayed in a shed installed within the gallery, illuminated with a single red light bulb, “echoing” the story told in the black-and-white ink and acrylic works on paper on view.

The exhibition description of series further notes: “This is the artist’s first overt confrontation of racial injustice, blending anecdotes from his upbringing in North Texas, the political history of racism in the American South, and art historical references to the hooded and masked figures in the work of modern American painter Philip Guston.” The drawings were first shown in 2014 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Hancock’s current show of new paintings is on view at James Cohan through Oct. 17. Hancock has repeatedly returned to this imagined, one-on-one, face-to-face meeting, which he calls “The Exchange.” In his latest works, the Klan figure alternately presents Torpedo Boy with his own decapitated head, an apple, and a light bulb. Visually, the scene appears to be a silent exchange, but the artist has incorporated the words of their conversation within the bodies of the figures.

In one encounter, Torpedo Boy is white as a sheet, just like Guston’s buffoon. Proffering a “heterochromiac starfish of Black and white fingers,” the Klansmen encourages Hancock’s ghost-white avatar to accept the object. “What in the hell is that?” Torpedo Boy asks. “It will help you live longer” and “you’ll be back to your old color in no time flat,” the hooded character claims. The painting is called “The Star of Code Switching” (2020).

“The code switching painting is centered around the idea of Double Consciousness—W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea that the Black man in America lives in two worlds. It’s like reaching for a star, the abstraction of the American Dream,” Hancock said.

“The more you dissect the image, the more it becomes fraught with historic tension and with my own history as a painter. It keeps feeding itself as an image. The item that is exchanged between them changes the narrative each time.”

“The code switching painting is centered around the idea of Double Consciousness—W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea that the Black man in America lives in two worlds. It’s like reaching for a star, the abstraction of the American Dream. The more you dissect the image, the more it becomes fraught with historic tension and with my own history as a painter.”
— Trenton Doyle Hancock


TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “The Exchange,” 2020 (acrylic, ink, and paper collage on canvas, 30 x 30 inches / 76.2 x 76.2 cm). | © Trenton Doyle Hancock, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 

The idea of two worlds is a persistent thread in Hancock’s practice. His work is rooted in the “Moundverse.” Drawing on his religious upbringing and obsession with comic books, the universe he created is populated by mounds (“large, furry, smelly heaps”) that live in wooded areas under threat of demise at the hands of mob-like Vegan creatures. Over the years, Hancock has introduced a multitude of additional characters, superheroes, and fascinating iconography to the mix, developing a spectrum of narratives and “consequences,” as he has described what unfolds. His graphically illustrated work is endlessly imaginative, absurd, masterful, and grotesque.

It’s a wonderful spectacle staged in response to the challenges of real life. Hancock first invented Torpedo Boy when he was about 10 and awkward. The superhero avatar provided an outlet and a source of childhood confidence. The character, and many of the self-portraits he has made, have transformed as the artist has matured and evolved. Hancock’s work has addressed values and morality, masculinity and mortality, the limitations and expectations of humanity, and more recently “the conditions of the Black body in America.” He explores abstraction and representation. White supremacy is a recurring theme.

“I grew up in Paris, Texas hearing stories from my grandmother, from my mother about lynchings that went on and happened, lynchings that were so heinous that they made the New York Times in the 1800s and early 20th century, that were newsworthy on a national level,” Hancock said in the video.

“That’s the kind of stuff that made me want to, you know, there’s the good kind of time travel and then there’s the bad kind. It’s like I felt I had to do the bad kind. You know, I had to go back and really look at this stuff head on, and go into the crowd and watch these people, tens of thousands that would gather.”

He continued: “It’s crazy. That prompted me to really dig into this series and turn it into something that was more than just two cartoon characters meeting up.” CT

 

“Trenton Doyle Hancock: Something American” is on view at James Cohan Gallery in New York, N.Y., from Sept. 17-Oct. 17, 2020

 

TOP IMAGE: Installation view of TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “Step and Screw: The Star of Code Switching,” 2020, “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Something American,” James Cohan Gallery, New York, N.Y., Sept. 17-Oct. 17, 2020. | Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 

READ MORE about Trenton Doyle Hancock in a new BOMB magazine interview

 


From his Houston studio, Trenton Doyle Hancock talks about his new paintings depicting an imagined meeting between his Torpedo Boy superhero avatar and Philip Guston’s buffoonish Klan character. | Video by James Cohan Gallery

 


Installation view of “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Something American,” James Cohan Gallery, New York, N.Y., Sept. 17-Oct. 17, 2020. | Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “It’s Just a Matter of Trust at this Point (for Chadwick),” 2020 (acrylic, graphite, plastic tops, and paper collage on canvasAcrylic, canvas, 60 x 60 inches, 152.4 x 152.4 cm). | © Trenton Doyle Hancock, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


Installation view of “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Something American,” James Cohan Gallery, New York, N.Y., Sept. 17-Oct. 17, 2020. | Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “SKUM: Just Beneath the Skin,” 2018 (acrylic, graphite, plastic tops, and paper collage on canvas, 60 x 60 x 4 inches / 152.4 x 152.4 x 10.2 cm). | © Trenton Doyle Hancock, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


Installation view of TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, Schlep and Screw, Knowledge Rental Pawn Exchange Service,” 2017, “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Something American,” James Cohan Gallery, New York, N.Y., Sept. 17-Oct. 17, 2020. | Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “CFR, Completely Fugging Rabid, 2020 (acrylic on canvas, 12 x 9 inches / 30.5 x 22.9 cm). | © Trenton Doyle Hancock, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “Come On In. It’s Safe,” 2020 (acrylic, ink, and paper collage on canvas, 30 x 30 inches / 76.2 x 76.2 cm). | © Trenton Doyle Hancock, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “Becoming the Toymaker, Phase 4 of 41: Stove,” 2020 (acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 14 x 10 inches / 35.6 x 25.4 cm). | © Trenton Doyle Hancock, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “Bringback Condiments: Mustard, Mayo, and Special Sauce,” 2020 (acrylic, graphite, plastic tops, faux fur, paper collage on canvasAcrylic, canvas, 90 x 132 inches / 228.6 x 335.3 cm). | © Trenton Doyle Hancock, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


From his Houston studio, Trenton Doyle Hancock discusses some of the themes, characters, and origins of the works in his “Something American” exhibition. | Video by James Cohan Gallery

 


Installation view of “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Something American,” James Cohan Gallery, New York, N.Y., Sept. 17-Oct. 17, 2020. | Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “Trenton Doyle Hancock Presents The Moundverse, Chapter 2: Veganism,” 2020 (ink on paper, Pages 13 & 14 from suite of 19 framed drawings; Each page: 24 x 36 inches / 61 x 91.4 cm). | © Trenton Doyle Hancock, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


Installation view of “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Something American,” James Cohan Gallery, New York, N.Y., Sept. 17-Oct. 17, 2020. | Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 


TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK, “Trenton Doyle Hancock Presents The Moundverse, Chapter 2: Veganism,” 2020 (ink on paper, Pages 15 & 16 from suite of 19 framed drawings; Each page: 24 x 36 inches / 61 x 91.4 cm). | © Trenton Doyle Hancock, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

 

BOOKSHELF
“Trenton Doyle Hancock: Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass” documents the artist’s MASS MoCA exhibition. “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones: 20 Years of Drawing” accompanied the artist’s show at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston. Although “Phillip Guston Now” is delayed until 2024, the catalog has already been published. The fully-illustrated volume features several contributors, including the exhibition curators, and artists Glenn Ligon, William Kentridge, and Trenton Doyle Hancock.

 

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