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Plastic lids and tops in bright reds, yellows, and greens. Ripped canvases. What look like painted papier mâché and cotton fleece. Shoe insoles. Felt, holes in the canvas, errant hearts and backwater crosses. Add blazing heads and distended organs. These all make up cartoon figures that are said to be part of the fictional cosmology that Trenton Doyle Hancock has developed over the years, what he terms the “Moundverse.” What more could you want from painting but this raucous, slightly creepy, rebellious screed?
That’s if you like your experience of the medium to be a series of bright thrills, images that are startling enough to jab you in the eye. Hancock proffers a percussive extravagance — stick and move, punch and get out — in his exhibition Pandemic Pentameter at James Cohan’s Lower East Side gallery. I have rarely seen paintings that give me so much welcome work to do: deciphering the shapes, tracking the drama, making sense of the teeny-tiny bits and then pulling back to make sense of the whole canvas. I find myself moving with Hancock’s punches: bob and weave, duck and watch the other hand coming. Step back and catch my breath. In “Coloration Coronation” (2016), I see a tarot-card hand rendered under the tutelage of Art Nouveau taking a holiday acid trip; the hand gets treated as a torso, with upside-down hammers for legs. There is a large red heart that might also have a head, which might be crowned with marshmallows that either morph from or into teeth. There are several figures, depicted only by their heads, and as I decide how many there are, I try to ascertain what they are doing. I’m still figuring that out.
Hancock’s paintings in this, his sixth showing at James Cohan, are about 21st-century image saturation and how we negotiate it. They’re about how we follow a narrative storyline given our visual aptitudes, and they’re also about material. He gives us a layered interaction, like an episode of The Simpsons: easy humor with ridiculous characters on top, but insights into what makes us all more or less ridiculous down below. Similarly, he entices the viewer with riotous colors and unexpected combinations of textures, but underneath is an thick cosmology of symbols, like the head endowed with a third eye that appears in several works. His paintings read like a graphic novel I want to take home, because I know that having it in my library is the only way I’ll have time to explore it thoroughly. And perhaps most of all I love the bottle caps — because they are so throw-away, so typically beneath my notice. Hancock says that with these little bits of junk, placed righteously, we might yet get to heaven.
Trenton Doyle Hancock: Pandemic Pentameter continues at James Cohan (291 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until November 26.