Word of Mounds: Trenton Doyle Hancock’s preachy creatures

Artist Trenton Doyle Hancock is revisiting his Mound character — a woodland fantasy preacher who feeds on Jell-O — in the Walker’s “Radical Presence” series.

Jared Hemming

Artist Trenton Doyle Hancock did not get along with vegans during college.

“I was confronted with some vegans when I was in grad school,” Hancock said. “I didn’t like their attitude, and I started making paintings about them.”

Hancock painted those characters years ago. But now, he’s bringing one to real life and performing the live show for free at the Walker Art Center on Thursday.

Hailing from the South, Hancock received his MFA from Temple University in Philadelphia in the late ’90s. During his studies, he created a fantasy world in his paintings filled with characters named Mounds and Vegans — black-and-white woodland creatures that represent a side in the archetypal good versus evil debate.

With the Mound, Hancock created a plump, striped character that’s half animal, half plant. The character embodies light and goodness against the Vegan’s evil conformity.

So originating from fantastical paintings, the Mound character is now going to be portrayed in real life — complete with a giant black-and-white body and bug eyes — for performances of Hancock’s 2013 piece “Devotion.”

Inspired by his adolescence spent as a junior deacon for a Southern Baptist church in Texas, “Devotion” is a piece Hancock recently revisited in an attempt to further explore his 20 years of Mound-centric artwork.

“If I’m going to create a character and paint that character, then I have to believe in it,” Hancock said. “One way to believe in a character is to perform as it — become the character.”

 

Sermon of the Mound

Calling the piece a “spiritual passageway” to his deacon childhood, Hancock said his Mound character emulates a preacher-like persona that is interactive with the audience — complete with call-and-response hymns.

“I reached toward my distant past [for inspiration],” Hancock said. “I spent 18 years being groomed to be a deacon. I abandoned that after I … found different ways to think.”

Similar to his own religious freedom, the Mound character is not bound to Christianity.

“His religion is Mound,” Hancock said. “Superimposing the Christian language over the piece is a way for me to see the two things in the same space — it’s sacrilegious.”

In Hancock’s imaginary world, the Mound preaches goodness with a lighthearted attitude about life.

The Vegans are contrastingly overly serious, militant devotees to their structured ways of thinking. In bringing the piece to the stage, Hancock said the Vegans and the Mound characters came to life.

“I was able to create a distance from myself, just sit back and play my characters like they were a game — a role-playing game, quite literally,” Hancock said.

Though the Vegans are not directly featured in the performing piece “Devotion,” Hancock said that part of the concept is up to the audience’s interactive interpretation.

“If the audience wants to consider themselves the Vegans, learning from a Mound, then they are in the piece,” Hancock said.

 

Comedy-bound Mounds

As a Mound, Hancock balances his pathos-heavy subject material with ridiculous activity, which includes some colorful poop jokes.

“The gallery director comes in and feeds me Jell-O,” Hancock said. Eventually, Jell-O-colored balloons emerge from Hancock’s Mound’s butt.

Unlike some modern artists, Hancock doesn’t have trouble shattering the cultural divide between art and comedy.

“The tougher subject matter, tempered by the humor — that’s totally intentional,” Hancock said. “I get more inspiration from comedians than I do painters.”

Finding liberation in satire’s “coded way to attack structures,” Hancock cited subversive comedians like Richard Pryor as an influence for his work.

“Richard Pryor … stretches the boundary of what you think comedy is,” Hancock said. “I’d like to think what I’m doing is pushing the boundaries of what painting is supposed to do.”

 

A creature without a race

Along with his taste for insurgent comedy, Hancock is approaching the Walker’s “Radical Presence” series — one with a focus on black contemporary art — with an experimental edge.

Considering the Mound character’s black-and-white body, Hancock said the art creates a dialogue about racial identities.

“[The Mound is] a fantastical being that lives in the forest — you don’t associate him with race,” Hancock said. “But his form came out of an investigation about racial stereotypes.”

Hancock’s signature black-and-white palette in his paintings takes form in his presentation as a Mound — from the white and black sheet covering his body to the salt-and-pepper beard on Hancock’s face.

“When you think of that oscillation between being black and white — out of that conversation came these forms,” Hancock said.

Despite this presentation, Hancock said the Mound’s inspiration derives in part from his boredom with the way race is often discussed in art, especially from his perspective as a black man.

“That conversation about race got tired back [when I made the Mound], and I wanted to create something universal that I could get into a story without getting overtly political,” Hancock said.

With religion, race and fantasy all present in “Devotion,” Hancock said he wraps the themes fast.

“It’s a quick thing, but it has impact,” Hancock said. “I’ll eat my Jell-O, sing my verse, and after that’s done, it’s over.”

 

 

What: Trenton Doyle Hancock

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: Free