The Basquiat Syndrome

Trenton Doyle Hancock benefits from the art world's peculiarly cynical twist on affirmative action

Actually, Hancock's half-baked narrative and imaginative cast of characters are the only aspects of his work that are truly original. As Hancock explains it in a handout titled "The Life and Death of #1," the story begins "about 50,000 years ago" when "an ape jacked off in a field of flowers," giving birth to "strange, furry heaps residing in wooded areas around the world." These heaps are known as "Mounds," and one of these mounds, alternately known as "the Legend" and "#1," seems to be the last survivor of that once-noble race--a race with which Hancock "shares a psychic bond." "I am ground control, and they are my satellites. I see what they see. I remember things that they did and things that they saw even after they are dead...I will be taking a dump and get a crystal clear image of tree bark."

The story unfolds in a series of drawings featuring not only "#1," but a host of supporting heroes, including "Loid," "Painter" and a character called "Torpedoboy." All of these heroes are the artist's alter egos, who go about the work of rescuing mounds and avenging slights inflicted upon them by a series of villains. The villains, in turn, resemble white simpletons and cracker farmers, one of whom bashes in The Legend's skull "while out hunting for edible varmints."

In short, Hancock has created an interesting variation on a venerable artistic genre, the African-American self-portrait. His multiple personas and imaginary world are a sort of new New Negro--in the words of Gates, a "coded system of signs, complete with masks and mythology." Like W.E.B. Du Bois' creation, Hancock's heroes are creatures of dignity designed to combat negative racist stereotypes. At the same time, they are a means of exploring the fragmented self-identity, the conflicts inherent in being black and American. As black intellectuals from Du Bois to Patricia J. Williams have noted, the African-American history of slavery, dislocation and discrimination has resulted in a sense of disunity, a feeling that one's black self has been torn asunder, fragmented, left in pieces.

"The Legend," a 1997 mixed-media work by Trenton Doyle Hancock
"The Legend," a 1997 mixed-media work by Trenton Doyle Hancock


Through January 20; 817-738-9215
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Hancock's work reflects this disunity, in form as well as in content. The content is easy to spot: His heroes are literally both black and white on the surface, and like all humans, pink underneath. Figures like "Frosty" and "Loid" deal with issues such as skin color and loss of pigmentation; both "Torpedoboy" and "Loid" deal with questions of race-obligation, through the business of saving and avenging mounds. In some drawings like "Pure N" and "The Legend," Hancock toys with racial stereotypes; in "Rememor with Membry," he plays with ebonics. Likewise, in form, Hancock relies on a number of traditional black narrative strategies, including "signifying," which Gates has defined as "a technique of indirect argument or persuasion, a language of implication...repetition of a form and then inversion of the same." In Hancock's work, the presence of characters is implied through their absence and through the repetitive use of symbols--Torpedoboy's handprint, Loid's repetitive words.

These are, of course, traditional African-American aesthetic strategies, employed by painters from 18th-century slaves to Jacob Lawrence to Basquiat. Though the Modern is careful to avoid invoking his name, Hancock's work is eerily reminiscent of Basquiat's: the sign system, the comic-book heroes, the imaginary cast of characters, the idiosyncratic and largely made-up version of history, the fascination with double entendres and puns, with word games, and with deconstructing language in general.

Like Basquiat's work, Hancock's is all about being black in America. The problem is that, outside this context, the work is difficult if not impossible to understand. The disunity makes for a pictorial awkwardness; the work is visually overwhelming, even impenetrable. Yet the Modern is bound and determined to treat Hancock as a mainstream artist. It is a determination that makes little sense and in fact does Hancock a grave disservice, since it is his very exoticism that earned him this show in the first place.

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