Guts 'R' us

The artist has something to tell us about how we process information, and Trenton Hancock uses the digestive tract to do it: teeth, throats, intestines, rectums--his as well as others'. Oddly enough, art hounds are eating it up.

To kick off his one-man, five-week exhibition at the Gerald Peters Gallery on May 30, the Paris, Texas, artist and recent Texas A&M at Commerce graduate made the well-heeled space a first-time venue for a performance-art piece, the kind of bizarro thing normally confined to alternative art spaces and senior-thesis dramatics. So Highland Parkies and other expectant collectors watched, slack-jawed, as a sleep-deprived Hancock sat atop a wood-and-chicken-wire contraption, shrouded in a fur-striped sheet, and dozed. Egg-shaped in his wrapping and blindfolded, he would awake every half-hour when an alarm clock signaled feeding time. Gallery director Talley Dunn would then climb into the box and spoon-feed the groggy artist Jell-O: red, blue, yellow--huge bowls of it. From the back end of the wire throne, or more specifically from an area that represented the artist's arse, blown-up balloons that matched the gelatin's color would sporadically pop out and float down. In between feedings, Hancock slept on, head bowed and silent. For two hours people watched, laughed, puzzled, and commiserated as he blindly ate and expelled. By the end, the gallery floor was covered in metaphorical shit.

The opening-night art-freak show did what it set out to do: drew media attention and serious buyers to Hancock's casual yet caustic works on canvas and paper, challenged Dallas' conservative bent, gave the artist the prestige of hanging in one of the region's most respected contemporary art spaces. Two-thirds of the works sold almost immediately.

Hancock, despite his youth and alleged shyness, has a mighty grip on how to make his experience as a black male resound with a growing audience--a white, North Texas one, no less. The 24-year-old punches up his melancholia with a big dollop of dry wit, and vice versa, and when taken together with his performance makes his exhibition at Gerald Peters Gallery a hat trick of art-world savvy.

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If we separate artists into categories (miserable fun), we get the ones who purge their personal baggage through their artwork, and the ones who goof on everyone else's conflicts. Let's say Philip Guston and Mark Rothko inhabit the former category, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol the latter. But such ghettoizing grows more absurd as we delve deeper into their collective success: Guston's peculiar, neurotic horror at social decadence couldn't shake us up like it does unless we've felt what he has felt at some level, and Koons, with all his aloof mockery, has appealed to the prankster in all of us. Tapping the universal is no measly feat, and for an artist to connect with the viewer--whether operating from darkest intimacy or distant observation--is what separates him from the art-school amateurs.

After the latex poop had been cleaned up, 36 canvases and drawings of Hancock's remained. They, too, refer to process, but more tangibly so: in his bleak gray and brown watercolors, shit looks like shit, not "fun" balloons; scrunch-faced characters who eat watermelons and fried chicken and walk through the grocery-store aisles look vulnerable and anxious and confused and hopeful--not half asleep. Hancock as an exile in the art world--black, southern, very young--reminds us he has the same body organs that we do, and his painted toilets look like our toilets at home. Parts is parts, and we not only "get" his mixed-media scenarios, we invariably see ourselves in them. Despite the profane subject, there's a self-effacing, innocent bent about it; his scenes are cartoony (he was a comic artist for his school paper) and gestural, and he embraces the visual elements we often cast off: fake fur, plastic deodorant caps, felt, spilled paint, and more important, swallowed words.

His language play is his most powerful barrier buster, and it keeps the works just this side of opaque. However silent his performance piece, most of his 2-D works employ letters and phrases--twisted, malformed. Words are the inefficient and often misused vehicle of the ugly treatment and social constructs Hancock refers to, as well as the labels we all embrace and misunderstand. So most of his little wrinkly characters choke on what they're trying to say while the indicating words float around them. In one untitled watercolor, a forlorn person sits by a telephone, hunched over the silent thing; thought bubbles overhead encase the repeated phrase "Caw me. Caw me..." On the bottom half of the work, this same lonely creature runs into the non-calling person at the grocery store--he's so angry and disappointed that he spews steam and inside screams "Found you!" Up and down the legs of his trousers are the words "brand new pants." The confrontee has a "lump" in his throat. It's heartbreaking, really, and what person can't sympathize with such awkwardness?

Hancock's watercolor images (or what looks to be watered-down charcoal) have a sinewy, knotty quality--like the Marvel Comics aesthetic taken to distorted extremes--that serves his purpose quite well; in most of his creatures you can see a length of esophagus, a gourd-like stomach, a twist of intestines. Along with these images are phrases such as: "Eat that and I'll be back here." "Order sweetie." "I don't like birthday cake." Many have see-through skulls, exposing rivulet-like brains. Some take in "food" with complacent grace ("No brainer," in the piece "Fiet or fliet"), others push it out in determined, violent whooshes. A fart blows as a billow of smoke from a bloated rear end; liquid spurts from a body-length penis. His big canvases, in all their various fabric and painted textures, further abstract this theme while taking it another step. In "Did I Do That?" Hancock has painted an X-ray of the person-creature's elimination process and placed the curved end of the final hole near the creature's head. He's regarding not only his own plumbing, but also how he processed what he was fed. Hancock, in effect, is living under the weight of misguided stereotyping that even he sometimes starts to accept or believe; i.e., Did I do that? Did I take in that notion and make it a part of myself for even a little while?

In conversation and press, comparisons to Jean-Michel Basquiat float up when it comes to Hancock's canvases--no surprise here. Any young black painter is bound to suffer this fate, especially if he deals in abstracts, but Hancock could be painting like Motherwell and still get the former graffiti artist's name tossed at him. (There are far too few blacks in art history to have their names so indiscriminately interchanged.)

Hancock has won scholarships to several venerable graduate schools; he plans to attend Temple University in Philadelphia in the fall. In the meantime, his debut solo show exposes a young man with one foot planted firmly in Guston's territory and the other standing in Koons'--he'll show you the chip on his shoulder, but he'll make fun of yours too. The images are strong (his works on paper particularly incisive) and intuitive, and if he stays this path, he should only get better.

Trenton Doyle Hancock: Off Colored is at Gerald Peters Gallery through July 11. For info call (214) 969-9410.

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