"That's you?" I asked.
"Yes, that's me. Can't you see the resemblance?" he laughed.
I could. No question. There he was in the center panel of the latest installation at Hermann Park, amid a cacophony of jovial pop culture-esque cartoon characters and animals that compose a new "happiest place on earth." Trenton Doyle Hancock's self portrait hugs a baby elephant, showing off a smile as big as as the many he hopes to inspire in those that are surprised by this wonderland of colors.
Titled Destination Mound Town — commissioned as part of Art in the Park, the park's centennial public art project — the large-scale vinyl piece engulfs what was formerly a dull amusement on the Hermann Park Railroad route. The metal building known as the tunnel can finally honk its own horn.
Hancock wasn't offended at the suggestion that Destination Mound Town reminded me of Walk Disney World's "it's a small world" ride — minus the music and moving parts, although much, much artsier.
"I just want people to have a sense of wonderment, especially the little ones, small children who may or may not have gone to a museum."
Anchoring the panorama of alligators, owls, tigers, horses, rabbits and an assemblage of many other characters is the "Mound," a plump feathery mutant creature that's responsible for ingesting the woes of the world to transform them into positive energy. The more negativity he consumes, the bigger the Mound becomes.
All that's left is a joie de vivre that's contagious, fitting for a public space surrounded by the Texas Medical Center, Houston Museum of Natural Science and Miller Outdoor Theatre.
"Mounds emerged when a cave man procreated with wild flowers," Hancock explains. "The mounds are ancient and have a deep connection to nature. In essence, they represent the spirit of the earth."
Hancock's sci-fi milieu appears in many of his painting and written works. He created the alternate universe while he was a student at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. In his early images, there was an inherent storyline that carried through from piece to piece with a tone that addressed social issues. This personal mythology is sometimes autobiographical, sometimes biblical. These symbols are influenced by his religious upbringing.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Paris, Texas, Hancock's style has garnered considerable attention from national and international institutions. His works are included in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Dallas Museum of Art; Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea in Trento, Italy; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Last year, Hancock was awarded the $30,000 Greenfield Prize by the Greenfield Foundation. His work will be shown once again in the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston as part of a retrospective titled Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin & Bones, 20 Years of Drawing, on view from April 26 through July 20.
Yes, Hancock is a big deal, although he doesn't take himself too seriously.
On the deeper side of the tunnel, the space is divided into three segments to aid viewers in focusing in one panel at a time. The opposite wall will display the mirror image outlined in black and white, a characteristic that he hopes will demystify the process of putting together such a display.
"I just want people to have a sense of wonderment, especially the little ones, small children who may or may not have gone to a museum," he says. "Oh, this is art that I'm ridding through right now.
"I want them to know that it's possible to do something that big and be that expressive and actually have fun with making art."
Watch the video (above) for CultureMap interview with Hancock and a preview of the installation in progress.