NORTH ADAMS — In the beginning, there was Torpedo Boy — bright-eyed, world-saving, briefs clinging tightly to a banana-yellow unitard. Torpedo Boy knew there was good in the world, and there was bad, and he would do everything in his considerable — if somewhat ambiguous — power to ensure that good came out on top. This would not be easy, for the source of all goodness — the Mounds, sentient quasi-plant forms linked by complex viscera beneath the earth — were under constant threat from the Vegans, who, given the chance, would rend and tear their pinky, herbivorous flesh like so many french fries at a Five Guys. Torpedo Boy simply could not let that happen. He would be their protector, their champion, a bulwark for virtue against the rising bile of evil in the world.
Still with me? OK. That’s good. A neck-deep immersion in the world of Trenton Doyle Hancock is no place to be alone. That’s where I went, and what I did, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art recently, where the biggest display of the artist’s comprehensive internal universe is on full display until at least the end of the year.
Mass MoCA’s building 7 — its biggest, where you could park a short-haul commercial jetliner and still accommodate all its necessary ground-crew vehicles — is where Hancock’s Moundverse makes its home. The vast scale of the space would be a challenge, I’d guess, for any artist who hadn’t spent the last several decades building out a distinct parallel reality. But in his hands, the big brick box, with its three-story-high ceilings, really just feels kind of homey, if your home had opened a direct channel to a dimension where all the 1980s Saturday morning cartoons and science fiction had gone to be melted into slag.
Hancock, 45, who grew up in Paris, Texas, started building the Moundverse in his mind as a child. The show’s opening moments might help explain why. Here, a modest bungalow, complete with picket fence, squats low beneath the sky-high ceilings above. Four child-size mannequins in costume (trick or treaters, one of them dressed as Torpedo Boy himself) leave the yard on their door-to-door sugar quest.
It all seems tranquil enough, in its neatly bland small-town way, but for a tell-tale black and red crucifix thrust through the front door in the grasp of a meaty fist. Aha. Around back, the truth revealed: You’re in Hancock’s grandmother’s house, “THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT” in hand-scrawled text on a raw two-by-four. Near the front door, a tangle of He-Man figurines (remember those?) are dumped in a bucket labeled “BURN THESE.” On a coffee table, an array of Jet magazines — Johnson Publishing’s now defunct, much-beloved monthly dedicated to African-American culture — shares space with another kind of publication: The reverend Richard Wurmbrand’s “Tortured for Christ,” the memoir of a Romanian preacher imprisoned by Russian Communists for his beliefs. On a hazy old tube TV, an evangelist dissects the Care Bears, a cadre of fluffy teddy-bear empaths with things like rainbows and moonbeams on their tummies, as the project of heathen subversives looking to instill occult practices in children (“It’s almost like they’re setting up their own religion,” he stammers, eyes blazing).
If this was Hancock’s typical visit to Grandma’s, you can see why he might need the Moundverse as solace and refuge, a place to call his own. Hancock’s family were Baptist ministers and missionaries, for whom scripture was absolute truth, the word of God himself. Hancock cross-fertilized those beliefs with comic books, Greek mythology, and as unhealthy a dose of trashy cartoons as any grade-schooler might (“He-Man,” for the uninitiated, was a briefly-popular cartoon series that pitted the titular hero, a creature of pure virtue and improbable musculature in an armored loincloth, against Skeletor, an equally-burly epitome of evil).
The narrative — good versus evil, virtue against vice — was familiar, and simple enough, whether in the Bible, a cowboy movie, or a Saturday morning cartoon. Hancock built his Moundverse along the same lines — the Mounds a repository of positivity, ever-growing, swelling, emanating goodness, and the Vegans the living embodiment of sin, looking to undo virtue only for its own sake. Making the Mounds immobile gave him a role, as their protector — Torpedo Boy, the guardian of goodness, aligning in his own way with his family’s evangelical mission.
That’s the big, long backstory to “Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass,” the well-named display of Hancock’s work here. Do you need it? Probably, though a walk through Hancock’s giddy array of paraphernalia here is an absurdist’s pleasure on its own. The board from the Candy Land game — a grade-school hero’s path, arrayed with sweet treats — provides the exhibition’s organizing logic, its rainbow panels winding from one end to the next. One of his towering Mounds — prisoner-striped, furry, and ballooning to a rubbery head sporting a goofy grin, way up top — opens up to let you inside, where shelves ring the Mound’s innards. They’re filled with what feels like a completist fantasy of a 1980s childhood: There’s Mousetrap, Operation, and Mr. Mouth; Godzilla and Alien toys, “Return of the Jedi” figurines, and Mr. T — all the goodness in the world, if you were a 10-year-old boy in 1983.
But there are other things, too: Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With 1,000 Faces,” the pioneering literature professor’s collected essays on the archetype of the hero’s journey across eras and cultures, and the endlessly-repeating, cross-cultural cycle of the creation and destruction of worlds (have you seen “Avengers: Endgame” yet?). Another little detail not to miss: Hancock’s certificate of completion at the Paris independent school district’s program for the academically gifted, and a He-Man-esque figurine of Torpedo Boy tucked next to one of the buff hero himself.
It doesn’t take a lot of insight to understand that Hancock has positioned himself along an age-old continuum of archetypal tales, from ancient myth through contemporary religion, superheroes and onward. This is not to suggest Hancock is self-aggrandizing; ultimately, I think, Hancock’s work is a paean to the value of storytelling — of character, of conflict, of struggle, and of overcoming — that has forever been part of humanity’s battle to make sense of its world.
Great artists engage the big themes, and this has always been one of the biggest, as long as sentience has been around to grasp it. Not to bestow on Hancock so exalted a position just yet, but the internal logic of the Moundverse contains all the elements, not the least of which is Hancock’s unique aesthetic to bring it to life. There’s a formal logic to his particular fantasy archetype that I can’t help but appreciate. Hancock takes his cues from comic books — there’s a handy, crisply-drawn strip here standing 10 feet tall that explains the functioning of the Mounds in plainspoken detail — but he’s just as engaged in art history.
He has a clear affinity for the aesthetics of Robert Crumb and Philip Guston, with the fleshy viscerality he so gleefully portrays; it feels to me that, as much as he’s placed himself on the continuum of heroic mythology, he’s also allied himself with the art world’s crusading outliers. Hancock, however, gushes radical positivity, a claim among said peers and influences that is uniquely his own. (A room full of huge, exuberant drawings bursting with kaleidoscopic detail and color lays out the Mounds’ job: to sponge up badness, whether pollution or “acidic emotions,” and then scrub them clean and return them to the world as “life-sustaining goodness.”)
It seems to me, really, that Hancock might see his own function in the world in much the same way. There’s a sparkle and lightness to his work, a — dare I say it — truly heroic impulse to overcome obstacles both cataclysmic and mundane (a lovely larger than life-size cut-out has the artist himself in caricature, shouting, “It’s up to each individual to make learning fun”). Hancock may be telling an age-old story, but with a dazzlingly original vision that’s entirely his own.
TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK: MIND OF THE MOUND: CRITICAL MASS
At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, through at least December 2019. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org