Growing up in Paris, Texas, in a religious household filled with portraits of his mother and lavishly illustrated children’s books, Trenton Doyle Hancock identified as an artist from the very start. Just a year or two after his first baby steps, his great-aunt taught him how to draw farm animals.
“I picked that up and ran with it,” says Hancock. Now 43, he also vividly remembers a high school field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art, when he first encountered paintings by modernist icons Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. The influence of those artists is still present in Hancock’s work, which he once described as “the merging of comic book narrative with the history of abstraction.”
But it was Frederic Edwin Church’s 1861 masterpiece The Icebergs, hanging in the same museum, that literally gave him the chills. “It was not photorealistic, but hyper-real,” he says, “in the sense that I actually felt cold standing in front of a painting of an iceberg. It transported me to the space of the uncanny, and I thought, there’s so many varieties of magic in painting, and this is something I want to explore.”
Now, the full range of his artistic magic is on display in "Texas: 1997–2017," a chronologically organized exhibit at the Rice University Gallery. Hancock—who’s lived in Houston since 2000 and whose work has featured in two Whitney Biennial exhibitions, plus museums across the U.S. and Europe—is also the Art League's 2017 Texas Artist of the Year.
From his disarmingly delicate mixed-media-on-paper portrait Biscuit Boy Badly (1997), all the way to his labyrinthine, psycho-psychedelic Bloodshot Eyes, Trippy Patterning, Red, Green and Yellow Coloration, Yep, This Piece is About Traffic Lights (2016), Hancock has selected paintings, etchings, silkscreens and prints from each year of his career as a professional artist for this exhibition.
Viewers will notice recurring characters in Hancock’s paintings, which portray an epic narrative. There’s the half-plant, half-human creatures called Mounds, who are relentlessly besieged by Vegans, malicious beasts who hate color as much as they hate Mounds. Occasionally swooping in to try and save the day is Torpedo Boy, an earnest if somewhat flaky superhero in yellow spandex who serves as Hancock’s alter-ego.
“I think artists have a superpower,” explains Hancock. “We are able to see things the untrained eye cannot see.” But they have weaknesses, too: Torpedo Boy’s pomposity often stymies his efforts to fulfill his role as the hero in Hancock’s story. Still, hope is never far off. Even as the hapless, terrorized Mounds undergo unimaginable duress, sexy flowers bloom, roots and branches grow and intertwine, and Day-Glo colors appear like manna from heaven with promise of rescue and redemption.
Though presented as a “small, concise survey,” the exhibition contains multitudes. As for Hancock, he isn’t resting on his laurels or even taking much of a break from his work. Whether he’s shopping for toys at a flea market or drawing during a phone interview, he’s constantly making art. “I feel very fortunate,” says Hancock. “At the drop of a hat I can pick up a pencil and notate life.”
Texas: 1997–2017. Thru Nov 17. Free. Rice University Gallery, 6100 Main St. 713-348-6069