Heavy Dark: Trenton Doyle Hancock’s illuminating lecture

Review by Mike Krutel

Trenton Doyle Hancock & Mark Masuoka at opening reception. Image courtesy of Chris Rutan.

Trenton Doyle Hancock & Mark Masuoka at opening reception. Image courtesy of Chris Rutan.

If every art lecture and opening reception at the Akron Art Museum can be as good as Trenton Doyle Hancock’s then more of them with an extra, “yes, please.” The September 5th opening for Hancock’s exhibition Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing at the Akron Art Museum started with something loosely called a lecture by the artist. It was not so much a lecture as it was a reading/storytelling event. In attendance was a compounding of demographics including at least two individuals glorious enough to take up the museum’s invitation for attendees to show up dressed as their superhero of choice (of the two: one flaunting lights woven into hair and one dressed inspirationally as Quail Man).

And+the+Branches+Became+as+StormcloudsHancock opened his informative lecture, which he said was about “darkness,” with little light in the room except for an overhead spotlight above the podium. A screen projection was a window for the audience into his various works as well as associative material from his history as an artist. He talked about darkness as it mattered in a narrative mode within the realms of his stories which have built his body of work, as it mattered in the visual elements, and therefore how it mattered in the intertwining of both to invoke the visceral elements of his art.

Perhaps what struck me most about Hancock’s lecture was that the unfolding of the lecture itself gave the attending audience a present embodiment of everything that he has worked on over his career thus far. Instead of a lecture rhetoric of pure enlightenment regarding the highlighted selections of his work, and instead of a lecture that pulled the curtain back and explained his methods of creation, composition, and meaning in such a way as to totally scrape the life out of the importance of his work. Hancock shimmied through a story of his life aligned with work that made little use, delineation, or transition between the two.

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At one point during the lecture Hancock nodded toward the Baroque, specifically bringing up Peter Paul Rubens and punning on the name by first pronouncing the name as “Paul Ruben’s peter.” This pun might be one of the more important penis jokes that I’ve ever encountered because it exemplifies quite a few things about Hancock’s work:

  1. As far as highlighting important elements of his 20 years of work in his lecture, there very important strain of written language, word-play, and narrative incorporated into the multi-medium, sometimes-performative, and often comic book nature of Hancock’s works.
  2. The works of Peter Paul Rubens and other Baroque painters are defined by an emphasized darkness where the worlds contained in many of such pieces become a little more strenuous. The same kind of difficult combativeness between darkness and light that is so apparent in dramatic narrative and especially comic book narratives/visuals.
  3. One of Hancock’s continually implemented characters is Torpedo Boy—a somewhat grotesque superhero figure that is, as he has said, derived Hancock himself (he first drew Torpedo Boy as a child and later revisited the character to make him what he is now in the works). Not implicitly stated in the lecture but unable to be overlooked is how this artist-to-character relationship parallels the bond between Paul Ruben and Pee Wee Herman. Perhaps I should state that Ruben’s penis is to Pee Wee what Torpedo Boy is to Hancock. The formers in this equivalency game do much more to mar the identity of the latters. But the important thing to note is how mixed up each pair of characters is. We cannot take Ruben’s penis away from Pee Wee just as we cannot make a clean separation between Torpedo Boy and the artist who created him, who does not want to make a clean distinction between the plucked narratives of his own life and the narratives of his creations. Pee Wee and Hancock are parts of light in their own worlds of darkness that is not total but certainly emphasized.

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The telling of the story, Hancock seemed to be saying, in itself is most important. The incorporation of everything is important. A larger sense of what darkness is, is most important. Immersion in the story is most important and in that story one can surely pick apart the historical real from the fictional casings of his art but this will only interfere with the more difficult meanings that come from his work. The tension between light (including color) and darkness is fundamental and yet difficult and cartoonish and humorous. To fold many different bodies into the same space defined by a darkness and a projector light and a story and two superheroes creates a moment of meaning that we might best serve as an audience to Hancock’s art.

You may have missed experiencing this storytelling event but Trenton’s artwork is on display through January 4, 2015 and welcomes a new audience.

Akron Art Museum, One South High, Akron, Ohio 44308,  330.376.9185

Gallery Hours
Wednesday – Sunday: 11 am – 5 pm
Thursday: 11 am – 9 pm
Closed Monday & Tuesday

All galleries are FREE on Thursdays.


Mike Krutel is the author of the chapbook Best Poems published by Narrow House. He is a co-curator of THE BIG BIG MESS READING SERIES and an Assistant Editor for the online poetry journal Pinwheel. You can contact Mike at makrutel@gmail.com.

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