Underneath the Skin & Bones

Art review by Roger Durbin

It’s not often you get to laugh out loud at an art museum when looking at an exhibit, but you might when viewing the wryly funny, frequently ribald and ironically clever drawings by young artist Trenton Doyle Hancock that are on display at the Akron Art Museum.

More than 300 sketches, drawings, collages, wallpaper, paintings and freshly painted doodles and text make up “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing” – the official name of this plucky art show.

The chronologically sequenced exhibit begins to the right as visitors walk in. There you can see early pieces, including Hancock’s “Epidemic,” a cartoon series Hancock began as an undergraduate in college – a fact seen in his use of notebook paper on which he draws early images of Torpedoboy, his superhero character who shows up over and over again in his work.

Trenton Doyle Hancock, "Give Me My Flowers While I Yet Live." Photo from Akron Art Museum

In the same space are some editorial cartoons the young drawer put together. Here you can see the humorous Hancock, in such one-panel drawings about safe sex – taking place in a safe where voice boxes are emanating as the characters push for space.

In the same room you can see the artist’s darker side. Scrawled across the upper wall is the phrase “You deserve less.” There’s one large drawing of a strange looking figure (characters take on weirder, essence-laden qualities denoting their goodness or evil nature) where the refrain “You deserve less” is spewed from every body opening. It is pretty graphic stuff, and highly inventive.

In the same room appears his series “Step and Screw,” where his superhero Torpedoboy meets klansmen from the KKK. Sixteen panels depict the period between 1878-present. The series is a nod to one of Hancock’s major influences, Philip Guston.

Trenton Doyle Hancock, "Holed My Hand." Photo from Akron Art Museum

The next three rooms of the exhibit dedicated to this one-man show are pretty much dominated by the title of the exhibit – “Skin and Bones” – where Hancock undertakes his epic tale of Mounds versus Vegans. Hancock said that he had two roommates in graduate school who were vegan – and who drove his meat-eating-self crazy with subtle pressure. The epic tale is his revenge on them.

The walls are painted in black, pink and white. By the end of the exhibit you come to understand the ways that Hancock is playing with the idea of color, such as why black is always used to suggest evil. In his terms, why not use pink, or some other color?

Most of the drawings and story line is pretty funny stuff. There’s one large mixed media work on paper called “Vegan Salad” depicting a big heavy Mound downing emaciated human looking vegans, one after the other. Hancock often draws exaggeratedly large body parts – a severed hand entering into the drawing’s action; starting eyes peeking out of a skull, that sort of thing.

Trenton Doyle Hancock, "Cave Space #3." Photo from Akron Art Museum

This part of the exhibit shows Hancock’s transformation from comics and illustrations/editorials to wider arts – graphic novels and “high art” as he calls it among them. Along with it comes a change in Torpedoboy, where the superhero has his flawed and dark side.

One wall has 10 panels depicting the storyline of Torpedoboy stealing tofu from a bunch of Vegans. The Vegans shout “dis tofu rool” while Torpedoboy chants back “tofu is drool.” It is pretty comical stuff, but gets darker as Torpedoboy takes the confiscated tofu and bargains with a prostitute to pay her in tofu, adding that with more tofu he wants stranger sexual things. Again, this gets to be pretty graphic.

Hancock helped to set up the display, writing text and making drawings that reach from floor to ceiling in five rooms of the museum. Text and stories abound. Visitors need to allow time, for the interaction of text and drawing is key to getting to the core notions that govern this artist.

Near the end of the exhibit is “Cult of Color,” which is the title of the ballet that was done by the Houston Ballet based on Hancock’s stories. Hancock did the costumes and set for the production.

Hancock’s works seem fanciful, and his somewhat alien looking caricatures (which in part shows the influence of Hieronymus Bosch on his art) help with his ironic, wry, frequently humorous, and sometimes dark probing of social and artistic issues. His takes on race and prejudice, sex and love, civility and violence, and the like are filtered through his colorful imagination.

“Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing” will be on display 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday and 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Thursday in the Akron Art Museum, One South High St., Akron; 330-376-9185; www.akronartmuseum.org. General admission is $7 (free on Thursdays).