Trenton Doyle Hancock: Water Ground Hell Sky

21 January - 12 March 2022 London

Hales is delighted to announce Water Ground Hell Sky, the gallery's second solo exhibition with the legendary American artist Trenton Doyle Hancock. The exhibition of new work continues Hancock's grand visual epic - a complicated and textured exploration of life's complexities and existential conundrums. The intricate story of a set of characters including Torpedo Boy (one of Hancock's alter egos), Mounds (half-animal-half-plant-creatures), their aggressors, 'Vegans,' and SKUM (a larvae species in a state of becoming) has been developed over decades, with each new work contributing to the saga.


Hancock (b. 1974, Oklahoma City, OK, USA) was brought up in Paris, Texas and gained a BFA from East Texas State University and an MFA from Tyler School of Art at Temple Philadelphia. Hancock lives and works in Houston, Texas. He grew up in an all-American household governed by Christian ideals and found solace in devouring popular culture - movies, comic books, superheroes, toys, music, and television shows of the 1970s and 1980s.[1] The origin stories of the bible as well as his favourite comic characters have greatly inspired and informed his unique practice and mythology of the 'Moundverse.'


The exhibition takes its title from the 2021 work, Water Ground Hell Sky, a masterful depiction of the artist's alter ego Torpedo boy. Hancock's characters are an extension of himself, ultimately each work is a self-portrait. The narrative world is rooted in the artist's life - always striving to reach a psychological equilibrium between the work and himself. Hancock likens this to passing a ball between himself and his characters, coming together to reveal and create something exciting. The political undercurrents in the works do not come from the headlines in the news, instead they come from deeply personal experience.

Focused strands of Hancock's practice make up this exhibition, each work is a distinct snapshot, providing a true reflection of his studio. Narrative elements are communicated through formal artistic explorations of materiality, shape, line, and colour. In distinct styles, Hancock creates graphic iconographies as well as exploring more organic processes of making, battling with the canvas to create layered surfaces. He has used swathes of felt and fur since 1998, often in bombastic installations, in this exhibition the use of the medium is at its most distilled, using fur as though it is paint. Torpedo Boy (2021) has a pop art quality to the repetitive background and a sub-series of 'Mounds' are much freer and more expressive in the mark making.


In two magnificent works, Water Ground Hell Sky and I Didn't Even Get To Say Goodbye, Torpedo Boy is an American Footballer. A sport long associated with national identity and the American dream, Hancock unpacks American Football as a cultural signifier. In I Didn't Even Get To Say Goodbye Torpedo Boy fights with Vegan characters that are clambering over his body. In this war, Torpedo Boy has used the bones of the vegans to create his Football helmet. Hancock has long thought about how sport in the US promises to elevate children of colour out of their circumstances, designed to keep Black people in a system where everyone makes money, likening it to the systems of industrial prison complexes and the military and seeing all these organisations as interconnected. These themes are layered with the intensely personal, - the work and title references the passing of Hancock's grandmother. The decorative pattern that almost consumes Torpedo Boy was the pattern of the living room floor tiles in his grandmother's house in Paris, Texas and is a motif often repeated throughout Hancock's works. This work brings together signifiers of both her presence (the quatrefoil pattern) and her passing (the bones which make up Torpedoboy's protective helmet).


The impactful black and white Step and Screw series began with a single idea - for Hancock's alter ego, Torpedo Boy to come up against one of Philip Guston's ineffectual Klansmen characters. Hancock sees Guston as a 'grandfather character' in his artistic practice, someone he has looked up to.

"I feel like my character Torpedo Boy has gone through a similar kind of metamorphoses over time [as Guston's Klansmen character] and it would only make sense that my avatar and Philip Guston's [avatar], I would describe it as one of his avatars, would meet up." (Hancock, 2020)


This initial one-time experiment developed into a compelling visual essay exploring white supremacy, expanding to include organisations such as the police and organised religion. In this body of work Hancock confronts racial injustice, drawing from his own upbringing in North Texas and the political history of racism in the American South. This personal exploration opens up a deep discussion of culture, race and power.


The exhibition invites you to experience Hancock's richly imagined universe. In iconographic and humorous depictions, the layered works hint at something darker, about society as a whole and individual culpability in racial injustices. Looking inwards to look outwards, not only is the artist portrayed in narrative, so is the viewer.



[1] Trenton Doyle Hancock: Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass, (Prestel: 2019), p17

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