The idea of a fictional universe has existed for centuries, but perhaps in modern times we can date it from 1960, the year that the Justice League first appeared, putting all of DC Comics most popular superheroes on one team. Or maybe 1977 is a better starting point. That was the year that the Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien was published, which provided the history of the Middle Earth from the beginning of time to the beginning of The Hobbit. Fictional universes have always been a nerd pastime-the need to create a world with its own rules inhabited by a bunch of characters whose stories form the substance of fictional universe in question. The Marvel and DC Comics universes became so convoluted that the companies that owned them had to publish publications designed to untangle the complex and often contradictory mythologies they had created. These publications (The Handbook of the Marvel Universe, published starting in 1982 and Crisis on Infinite Earths, published in 1985) would have hit the young Trenton Doyle Hancock, born in 1974, at just the right time to be influential.
The idea of a fictional universe is key to understanding Hancock’s art. He even made his own version of The Handbook of the Marvel Universe, the Trenton Doyle Handbook, in 2007. He was 10 years old when he created the first character who would ultimately become a part of his “Moundverse.” That character is a superhero, Torpedo Boy, modeled after Hancock himself. Torpedo Boy has remained a constant character-Hancock produced a story about him as recently as 2014 for his solo exhibition “Skin and Bones” at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (the show has since has traveled on to such disparate institutions as the Akron Art Museum, Virginia MOCA, and the Studio Museum in Harlem). The story was published as a comic book included with the catalogue for that show. His other characters-the various Mounds, the Vegans, and the two creators of the universe, Painter and Loid-came together in the early 2000s. They’ve all been a part of his work ever since.
Hancock was brought up in a very religious household in Paris, a small town in northeast Texas. As a child he was entranced with comics and video games. He played drums for his church services and still has a drum kit in his studio today. His college education started out in Paris Junior College, and after two years there, he transferred to what was then called East Texas State University (it is now called Texas A&M Commerce), which was situated about halfway between Paris and Dallas. This turned out to be propitious choice on Hancock’s part. East Texas State had an unusually good art department who recognized right away that Hancock was something special. Both the school and town of Commerce were good environments for Hancock. As he recalls, East Texas State “had the luxury of developing itself over many, many years with amazing professors. I don’t know how they all ended up there. It’s not just the years I was there-it’s back in the ’60s and probably before that.”
“The town itself is so strange. It’s almost like Twin Peaks. It is a strange pressure cooker for weird-as-shit people. I was the beneficiary of these all these fringes who hung around campus.” He talks about discovering underground comics like Art Spiegelman’s Raw. He showed one of his professors, Lee Baxter Davis, the artwork of Raw contributor Gary Panter only to discover that David had taught Panter at East Texas State in the ’70s.
His professors were not only excellent, but they had great expectations for him; they made sure Hancock did residencies and went to grad school. “I was still an undergrad at the time when I got into Skowhegan. I went up there and that was the first time I had met artists from either coast.” Among the artists coming through Skowhegan in 1997 were Adrian Piper, Bill T. Jones and Lari Pittman, whose dense approach to image making is similar to Hancock’s. With Pittman’s example in mind, he applied to and was accepted into UCLA’s MFA program, but chose Tyler instead. His time at Tyler affected his work in important ways.
“The entrenchment in New York abstraction. That is Tyler,” Hancock explains. “We would make trips to New York every weekend and see everything that was going on. The professors generally taught through the lens of a certain time period in American art history. We got a crash course. We learned how to speak about out work in terms of how it fits into that trajectory.”
But his work seems so different from that, I object.
“I beg to differ, actually,” he replies. “Some of the reasons I wanted to make work on a certain scale was seeing de Koonings in person. Lee Bontecous. Motherwells. How do I get into this and take away something useful. How can I personalize this? What is the idea of ownership and how do I get there? Where am I in this? And if I’m not in it, then it’s public access. It’s something else… I want to be an artist. I want to be in conversation with artists living and from the past. I happened to go to the two exact schools that could facilitate this conversation.”
After Tyler, Hancock was encouraged to apply to the Core program, run by the Museum of Fine Art, in Houston. The Core program brings in artists for two-year residencies. It is run by sculptor Joseph Havel, who had contacted Hancock on the advice of a former professor from East Texas State, Michael Miller. “There was an assumption in the Core that you had already worked through a lot of things in your grad program,” Hancock notes. “We’re giving you the space and resources to unpack all that stuff and become the artist that you’re supposed to be without a lot of guidance from some administrative hand. That was really great. Any prodding or conversation was between us, the fellows.” It was as a Core fellow that Hancock sketched out the mythos of the Moundverse.
The Mounds were human-vegetable hybrid creatures. They are between 25 and 60-feet tall with alternating bands of black and white fur. The bands of black and white started with characters he had invented in college. The precursors to the mounds were somewhat bowling-pin shaped figures. The idea of the stripes came from thinking about prison uniforms and the prison-industrial complex. But the origin was also personal. In 1996, “I was still an undergraduate and started reading theory about ‘the other’ and identity politics. Someone pointed out that I was a ‘black artist’ I thought I was just an ‘artist’ … I hadn’t given any thought to identity up until age 21,” he recalls. “I kept going back to this oscillation between black and white. And I saw that as my identity, actually. I was into things that were ‘black things’ and, of course, into things like Cheers. That was my favorite thing in high school.”
The Mounds morphed out of the bowling pin-like prisoners. “The idea of the mounds was to be a receptacle for everything I wanted to throw into it. They get fatter and fatter. That shape is perfect. It’s a dome, it’s my brain. It’s a way to process stuff.” Mounds are big and immobile, and this relates to the problem that all inveterate collectors have. Collectors are inherently not nimble. They can’t easily pick up and move and start over somewhere.
Hancock himself is a “natural collector” of toys and other collectibles. “I have a museum behind my house. I love objecthood.” His studio carries some of the overflow of his collecting activities. He keeps his collection of “ride-ons” (toys designed for very young children to ride on) as well as his collection of “alabasters,” which is his word for the little statuettes one could buy at knick-knack shops that might show, for example a three-dimensional representation of a cute cartoon character with the words “I WUV YOU!” carved on the base. He says that in the hundreds of books on collecting he has, he has never come across one about “alabasters.” He may be the only person in the world who makes a special effort to collect them.
In this way, the Mounds are self-representations. Their mortal enemies are Vegans. “The Vegans came from a bad roommate experience. I had a couple of roommates who were actual vegans. They were very preachy. I grew up in an ultra-Christian environment and I just broke away from this. I don’t want to go back into a situation where I’m being hounded.” He sublimated by creating a group of characters who hurt Mounds.
These were the start of the Moundverse, the universe of characters and mythology that Hancock would create. The Moundverse might seem quite bizarre and alien, but every element of it has a personal meaning. For Hancock, creating characters is “a coping mechanism. A way to arrange all the information that we’re given. I needed a way to protect ‘me’ within this changing landscape [of the modern world].” One wonders if such universe creators as J.R.R. Tolkien and Jack Kirby had similar motivations. This universe that he has created is full of ongoing stories, not unlike the Marvel universe or world of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. He showed me a work in progress that featured as a small part of it a green superheroine wrestling a werewolf-like creature. Of course, they are part of the Moundverse-the superheroine is Undom Engle, a “goddess in training” and the wolf is Repaint, who was attacking the heavens in the Moundverse’s cosmology.
As viewers of Hancock’s art, we get occasional glimpses of this. He published an elaborate book Me a Mound in 2005 that explained the basics of the Moundverse, but has added much to the mythos since then. He plans to tell the whole Moundverse story in graphic novel form. “It’s a graphic novel in my head. Everything is linear and it all fits,” he says. But he recognizes that art viewers see it in a fragmented, confused way. A graphic novel will allow the story to be told in a comprehensible way. “I’m going to Berlin for six months in January. I’ll probably start the graphic novel before then to build momentum, but it will be a way for me to just sit and write and draw for six months.”
Hancock’s working method is a kind of accretion, as befits a mythology that grew over time. His big canvases are actually collages. “Everything gets pinned up first. Then I move stuff around. Once it’s glued it’s still not set. I maintain the right to go in with a knife and cut whole sections out and rebuild things.” A given canvas may be laid out flat on sawhorse or leaning up against the wall. As a work in progress, one sees a myriad of drawings and paintings laid out on the large canvases. Some of these are recent work, but they can also be years old.
“I’ve never thrown any material away. I have everything I’ve done from, well, when I was a kid,” he explains. “The stuff that is subject to being recycled into this work is just trash bags and boxes of stuff from undergrad until now. Every studio I’ve ever had, I sweep up at the end. I take the dirt-I take everything. I put it in a bag and it comes with me to the next place. And some of those things end up getting reused.”
Some of the works-in-progress in his studio include scraps of art from 10 years ago. He’ll think of a character and have a need to see that character, so he draws or paints it. But it may not be used in a finished work for years. And although the paintings appear as unified wholes when one sees them in a gallery or museum, they are actually built from scraps rather than painted from scratch.
Hancock will work diligently on these paintings over the next couple of months (these are for a show at James Cohan Gallery in New York opening October 23). Then, they will end up in someone else’s collection. G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “What is there wrong about a miser that is not often as wrong about a collector?” But I think Hancock knows better: a true collector isn’t a miser, but a hoarder. Mounds, by existing as large geodesic selves are hoarders of a sort, collectors of memories and objects that are meaningful to them. The mounds are a kind of self-portrait for Hancock, but they are also a depiction of all true collectors, regardless of what they collect.