In conjunction with a new release of the book, Me a Mound, published by PictureBox, and his last solo exhibit at James Cohen Gallery, Trenton Doyle Hancock sits down for a conversation with Fred Tomasseli and Dan Nadel.
Nadel: I think we should talk a little bit about how you both come to share common background and common experiences when you were kids.
Trenton Doyle Hancock: I was born in Oklahoma City, but I grew up in Paris, Texas in the dirtier end of the middle class section of town. My stepfather was a Baptist minister so I grew up sort of inundated with images of Jesus, angels and the other-worldly, and they were all presented to me as being very readable and accessible resources. I also loved comic books and whatever was at the mobile art fair that shows blue bonnet paintings; I was there to relish the spectacle. I didn’t go to an art museum until I was a senior in high school. Actually, my first contact with paintings was looking through reproductions in the Encyclopedia Britannica we had at home.
Tomaselli: [laughter] I grew up in Southern California in a working class neighborhood. No sense of entitlement what so ever. No sense of what real art looked like, except in magazines. I was also really impressed when I first saw huge paintings in a museum in high school. Anyway, I think Trent and I were both trained to be illustrators because we felt we needed a good trade. Since we both didn’t come from privileged upbringings, illustration seemed to be one possibility for making a life in art. Besides, at the time, I really didn’t know the difference between illustration and fine art. Later, when I went to college everything changed.
Nadel: Both of your visits to the museum made you realize that abstract paintings were more than just doodles with a ballpoint.
Hancock: Yeah. In my first visit to the Dallas Museum of Art, I saw this great Motherwell painting, one of his Spanish Elegies to the Spanish Republic. At first I was just excited, because I recognized the image from seeing it in the encyclopedias, but when I came up closer to the painting, it looked as if it was quickly painted—though it must have been done by a man who was 40 feet tall . In addition, you could also see all of these layers of paint, with different degrees of whites. They reveal themselves as really thoughtful paintings, and so I was thinking to myself, “Oh! You can do that! You can make a painting that looks like one thing from afar but when you get closer it reveals itself to be all of these other things.” I was so excited with this realization that I could do all these things with paint that I didn’t think were possible before. Soon after that, I went to Texas A&M, where I was fortunate enough to have some great teachers who thought in those terms, of combining, abstraction and realism, high and low culture all at once, so they encouraged it and presented it to me as an option.
Tomaselli: That was Lee Baxter Davis?
Hancock: Right. Lee Baxter Davis, who just had a show over at the Cue Foundation a month ago. That was his first New York showing ever—his first time actually being in New York. This is a sixty-five year-old man and he’s perfectly okay with never showing anywhere and happy with just making the work and letting it pile up in his studio. This kind of befuddled visionary was my teacher. At any rate, the very idea that you can create this personal narrative or mythology that embraces both idiosyncratic craziness and intelligence at the same time was part of his teaching.
Tomaselli: I have been hearing about Lee Baxter Davis for years from Gary Panter, Georganne Dean and Christian Shuman, who all admire him and his work. For them, he seemed to encourage looking into localized sources that breed and grow outside of the known establishment of taste, and they were encouraged by him not to feel ashamed about any of that.
Hancock: And he taught by example. He would just draw on a sheet of paper while talking about these crazy theories, which were, in a way, like how William Blake was able to bring together religion and secular ideas in his paintings. And that wouldn’t be any different than our rather outback roots, Texas-like materials. He also has taught me a great deal about etching. You’d never seen anything like it in his prints. They looked like Dürer and Bosch, if they’d collaborated and made etchings.
Tomaselli: And I understand from Gary Panter, that Lee Baxter Davis is now a Catholic lay minister, as it turns out.
Hancock: Gary actually was at East Texas State University in the ‘70s, and he went on in the ‘80s to be the head guy at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. So that’s one of the great legacies that Gary left but yeah, who would have thought! I guess that was a big surprise to many people. But when I was at the school not so long ago, some of us could sort of see it coming. He was edging towards that.
Nadel: How do you reconcile this collision of Garbage Pail Kids with working images that derive from fashion and magazines, not to mention the whole culture of rock and punk music, sex and drugs?
Hancock: It all began in the form of drawing. I’ve always been a profuse drawer and I’d say early on I’ve always wanted to make images my own, like if I did Spiderman, I always wanted it to be my version of Spiderman, like it had to go through this personal wringer, then be transmitted again before I could feel it was my own. Unlike those who learn how to draw from books, how they copied someone’s style verbatim, I never learned that way which is why my drawings always look a bit weird and funky. I guess I haven’t changed much. I just see myself as sort of a rolling stone gathering things as it rolls along. My influences as a child are pretty much the same influences I have now. In fact, there was a certain point in graduate school where I lost my way and I stopped drawing in my sketchbook. I don’t know, it was just a weird time for me. Then I realized that the way I was going to regain my footing was to look back to the drawings I had done in childhood, and luckily I kept all of those drawings. I went back home and unearthed all of those drawings and began to look at them as a way to recapture the confidence that I once had as a child. And that was what led me to the idea of making a narrative and really trusting my own character. A lot of it grew out of the Bible, bad movies, pornography, comic books, and stuff like that.
Tomaselli: I also access my personal experiences and make them visible in my work. I’ve never felt like I needed to stop anywhere, except that I have always tried to think of the social as a parameter that brackets the personal. Hopefully, my concerns can project out into a larger world and not be too solipsistic. Speaking of which, I have a question about the Mound and the Torpedo Boy characters. You recently completed a private performance work, where you were an obnoxious vegan for six months. I know that the vegan in your inner cosmology is often the progenitor of evil, and you incorporated the character of the evil vegan in your own life. Now, it seems to me that the Mound and the Torpedo Boy are somewhat autobiographical—correct me if I’m wrong—but was being the vegan in some way your attempt to see what it’s like to be in the mind of the enemy?
Hancock: That performance was called “Good Vegan;” and the new one that we’re actually in the midst of right now is about a sect of veganism once upon a time, that wanted to become good but all turned out the opposite. But in my performance, where I became a vegan for six months, which is completely unlike me… [laughter]
Tomaselli: Yeah, when I met you, your car was filled with Burger King wrappers. It was up to my knees, and I was like, “who is this man who loves Burger King so much?”[laughter]
Hancock: When you met me, that was also my first time that I had met vegans, through a roommate situation.
Tomaselli: You had a roommate who was a vegan?
Hancock: Two of them, a married couple. [laughter]
Nadel: Did you get along with them okay?
Hancock: Not really, partly because they were very aggressive. They were totally self-absorbed people, and I thought, “Wow, these people that are promoting this copasetic existence with animals and plants and humans, they’re so pushy and unaware of other people’s boundaries.” I didn’t understand what that was all about, so the only way I knew how to combat this was to put it in my work, and I guess my infatuation with the absurd inspired me to turn these characters, which, in theory, are supposed to be peace-loving, into these very evil creatures. And that fits perfectly well with my upbringing as a Christian.
Tomaselli: You mean like, pushy Christians? People that thought they were doing you a favor by telling you how to behave a certain way?
Hancock: Yeah, threatening you with hellfire…I didn’t know what that was all about, so I guess it was a blessing to be thrust into a situation with those beings, then I could talk about it. All of that is the underlying premise in my current work. For instance, the “blesstian” room, a made up word, that combines “blessed” and “Christian,” but this show represents this place where good things are supposed to happen, but it’s slowly going towards something that is very wrong.
Tomaselli: It sounds to me like you have issues [laughter] with Jesus. Your stepfather’s a Baptist minister, and you come from a family that truly believes in the power of the Lord, and so I take it that this is sort of a criticism of your upbringing. I mean, what does your family think about your work? Do they understand the vegan-Christian corollary?
Hancock: Oh no, not at all. But I think my mother, although she’s pretty perceptive, she never tries to dissect and talk to me about my work. And even though she knows that I’ve got Jesus issues and I am a bit weird, she, for the most part, leaves me alone and lets me do what I do.
Tomaselli: You also love certain aspects of the Lord like gospel music, as I do.
Hancock: Sure. Once I left home and gathered some sort of objectivity, I could look back now and see what was beautiful about the way that I grew up—the idea of the community, the idea of having religion as the equalizer. You could say in a way that it keeps trailer trash from becoming potentially threatening.
Tomaselli: It’s true! There are rednecks and Jesus-freaks out there. Do you want your next-door neighbors to be speed tweaking red necks with shotguns, or do you want them to praise the lord? (I’m speaking as a lapsed Catholic who has incorporated all this Catholicism into his work.) There are certainly aspects of Catholicism that I find really compelling, not all of the dogma per se, but it can be a catalyst for great beauty. There’s also a certain poetry to the language.
Hancock: Transubstantiation is a big deal in contemporary art. This idea of taking one thing and making it into something else.
Nadel: Trent, one of the central events of your narrative is the Fall from grace. And Fred you’ve done many paintings on the same theme, and in spite of the overall presence of apocalyptic vision, the work has always been mitigated by hope therefore turned out with slight optimism. I’ve wondered how that fits in?
Tomaselli: I’ve been a product of a lot of wrong-headed utopianism. Despite its pitfalls, I am by nature, somewhat optimistic. Even though I’m sort of slogging through the rubble of history in my work, I do try to pull things out of the smoldering wreckage that I think are worth preserving. I try to redeem some of these cast-away ideologies that were tossed away prematurely in order to find new ways of talking about them. At any rate, I try to remain optimistic while still keeping my eye on the whole utopianist aspects of art history and how that intersects with my own personal history. What about you Trent, do you consider yourself an optimist?
Hancock: Yeah. I’ve sort of built hope into my own narrative in the same way as yours.
Nadel: There’s the whole notion of regeneration, of re-growth, despite the horrible things that happen, there is always a new possibility for regaining vitality…
Hancock: I’m trying to figure out how I can talk more about the work, or my worldview. Like Fred I sometimes am a secretly optimistic person.
Nadel: Why secretly?
Tomaselli: I don’t see it as a secret. I see these things as being very funny and alluring.
Hancock: Okay, I like the good things in life, but I’m attracted to war. There’s something about conflict that I find it very compelling. And that’s why I always kill off all of my characters, like the way I’d paint something nice and then mess it all up.
Tomaselli: It does seem like art without pathology becomes kitsch. But it’s the conflict in your work that saves it from being decorative. It makes it more dense and complex.
Hancock: In war you have a winner and loser, and the winner is the king for a while and the loser is the enslaved, but then you have uprisings, so there are these gradations towards these crescendos—there’s always something bubbling under the surface. I think that’s the way I like to tell stories. There’s always a calm moment which is the illusion that things are fine, before the disaster happens.
Nadel: The calm moments in your work are usually moments of industry; your vegans milling away at the meat, and so on. But in your work you tend to tell stories that are full of little dramas along the way.
Tomaselli: I think that it’s sort of a metaphor for the creative process. The narratives that are being acted out are like the push and pull of the struggle in the studio. The narrative structure of war is not unlike the artistic struggle to find images.
Hancock: Right, like the idea of expansion and contraction, I’ll be working one way very delicately and the tension would build up from another way—I mean the impulse to make it bold and expressive. I’d just get frustrated and I’d have to chop it all up. Quite literally, art is thinly masked, especially in the show I had here two years ago—it’s about this ape man who is overtaken by a field of beautiful flowers, and from there came this new hybrid character…
Tomaselli: What was the name of that character?
Hancock: Homerbuctas .
Tomaselli: Most people thought that was derived from Homer Simpson, but it turns out you have a relative by that name?
Hancock: My grandfather’s name was Homer.
Nadel: How about your use of language. Does the picture come first or the other way around? Is language a form of limitation for you in that respect?
Hancock: Well, in the beginning when I created this whole narrative as a grid for plugging characters in, it was a great relief. Because at that very moment, I thought this is going to be very easy, the paintings will be illustrations for the story. But as I started moving forward with the story frustrations would emerge and all I want to do is mess up the words and turn them into linear elements. The words are made up like concrete poetry, then I would start thinking about the texts as to how many different ways could I make them function because I didn’t want the text to overpower the images. Sometimes the images would force me to amend what the text was, and vice-versa. In any case I always try to provide a space within the two elements for that sort of openness could exist somewhere in the middle.
Tomaselli: To me, there is not a substantial difference between what many sophisticated conceptual artists do in order to bring a more palpable vivid imagery into the world, and say, a person considered an “outsider artist.” Their processes are very similar. This is where language becomes a nexus for creativity in that it helps externalize an inner world. I don’t think there’s a lot of different between Sol LeWitt, or Chris Burden and Henry Darger when it comes to the vivid quality of their art works. The categories between outsider and insider are irrelevant at this point.
Nadel: Trent, I wonder if you could talk about the difference between making a narrative with a series of paintings and wall text, and making a book, how language interacts in a book as opposed to the way it interacts in painting or on a wall?
Hancock: When I’m actually in the studio making and having a dialogue with the painting, I’m pushing and pulling, and the results are layers of information, which I have to be there to receive them. That experience therefore is physical and sensual, where as in a book it’s all flattened out. When we began to make the book, we wanted to make the book as colorful as possible, but as I look back and think, the only way it could work, since it is a summation of eight or nine years of work, would be to regain some of that physical and sensual experience, which is impossible. But the only way to achieve this is to make it a bit crazier than the ordinary art book.
Tomaselli: What I find cool about the work is that the narrative structures aren’t text-dependent, but when one explores the work further, like a pop song, you get seduced by the melody and then later you like the lyrics, and it becomes a total mind-body experience. That’s the way the text seems to operate in both our work. When you start reading the text, it becomes even more complicated, and I think that’s what the book can give to the viewer that the show might not.
Hancock: The book is more of an attempt to place my work back into the culture that helped create it; book culture, comic book culture. How can I format the work as a book while still maintaining the integrity of the lyrical—which is something which was in the back of my mind years ago, but only came to fruition last year. For one thing, the paintings may hold up in real life, but as a narrative in a book form that is something else all together.
Nadel: I wondered if you were worried about that. I wondered if the structure of the narrative was as important to you as the structure of the images.
Hancock: Different than paintings one sees in the gallery, where you walk in and there is no explicit paragraph to phrase the narrative, the book is more like a mantra, it gets you into the ballpark of feeling the repetition of turning the pages; it is identical in size and tells a story in a continuous length. That in itself is new for me.
Tomaselli: What’s interesting about them is that despite the narrative being more pronounced and this incredible palimpsest of images, the book still retains its own ambiguity. It never becomes too specific. Language doesn’t over-determine the meaning behind the work, like in a comic. Take for instance Robert Crumb, who we all like. He has a very deterministic narrative structure, but in your case, it’s a little bit more complicated.
Nadel: I find the narrative in Trent’s work quite unique precisely because it doesn’t derive from the standard fantasy or sci-fi elements. There are no sub-plots, you don’t suddenly learn what this or that character looks like. Instead you just follow this general, not over-determined narrative—it’s powerful in the same way a gospel song is powerful, because of the specificity of the images, but not necessarily with an in-depth plot or character development.
Hancock: It’s coded.
Nadel: Do you mean intentionally coded, or coding in the way you write?
Hancock: I initially set out to write in a way that was consciously free of a certain genre. I’m always aware of archetypes and universal values and when I get too specific I like to pull out. It’s always a conversation between what the text is and what’s happening with the images. The paintings often dictate what the text is going to be in the end.
Nadel: Have you ever gone in reverse?
Hancock: Not really.
Nadel: Do you enjoy writing?
Hancock: I definitely do, I mean, I don’t know how good I am…
Tomaselli: I think it’s pretty good. So what do you listen to in the studio besides gospel?
Hancock: I listen to cheesy pop music from the ‘80s…
Tomaselli: Like Duran Duran?
Hancock: No…Christopher Cross. Also jazz fusion. Like Chick Corea, Stanley Clark, Miles Davis, P-Funk, Sun Ra—who I really love. His take on spirituality and space mythology is utterly cool.
Tomaselli: Yeah, he’s got a deep universe in his music, as does George Clinton.
Hancock: Especially in P. Funk’s music, his idea of taking Christianity and basically just renaming everything and making it your own was important to me when I was in graduate school. His music did help me regain my confidence in imagery.
Tomaselli: I loved those the record covers. They were totally amazing. Anyway, you now live in Houston, Texas. How do you like it?
Hancock: It’s a little too cosmopolitan, although there are more strip joints than churches.
Tomaselli: But when you get out of Houston there are those mega churches. Are you close to that brand of Christianity? Are you getting some juice out of that? Being close to where you grew up?
Hancock: No. I get more from the strip joints than from the church.
Tomaselli: That is the church! [laughter]
Hancock: No, I don’t think the proximity to all of that does much for me right now.
Nadel: Why have you stayed in Houston?
Hancock: I moved from Philadelphia after graduate school, and came back to Houston because I got into a residency program there. Actually, I feel safe in Houston because simply it’s not as fast paced as in New York. Besides, I’m a compulsive collector of objects and space is such an issue up here (in NYC). You guys haven’t seen my toy museum, I have literally thousands of action figures and toys which I buy and sell on eBay, I need constant visual stimulation in that way.
Nadel: What does it do for you to have all this stuff around you? Some collectors, myself included, just like having the company of the things or the vibrations of the things to feed off of.
Hancock: I feel the same way. One of my favorite things to do is going to flea markets and thrift stores. When I see a bin of toys from the store window, I rush in with such anticipation. I want to run in there like a kid! The sight of the potential, what you might find in there is so exciting.
Tomaselli: If you had an unlimited space and could live in New York, do you think it would change your work? Or is the world so internalized into your work that it doesn’t matter where you are?
Hancock: Well, Houston is a really good place for me in the sense that it is still sort of a gritty place to be, although it’s slowly becoming more gentrified. There’re a few great museums and the exhibitions that come through town are amazing. After I finish working in the studio, I’d often go to the de Menil collection, and see great paintings there. They’re always putting together terrific mini retrospectives of different artists. Recently, I saw an Ellsworth Kelly show that actually made me rethink his whole career. I certainly understand his work more than I did before.
Nadel: Fred, a lot of your work is about information, and they manage to infuse into the narrative to the paintings. How is that process made possible?
Tomaselli: I don’t think a painting can have too much information. I know that each artist has to decide what he or she won’t put in the work, but if I could put the whole world in my work I would. I want the work to be as dense and as complex as possible, that way it can yield a multiplicity of meanings depending on the viewer’s personal history. I think Trenton’s work is very dense and complex. Meaning is able to ping pong around in a variety of ways.
Nadel: Trent, are you trying to take the viewer somewhere?
Hancock: First and foremost it’s for me. If I can go somewhere, then it’s secondary or a bi-product if other people are able to travel through. In other words, when I’m building a painting, if it holds up for me in 6 months or 2 years later, and if I’m still going in different places with it, then it has done its job for me.
Nadel is director of Grammy-winning art, music and comics publisher PictureBox.