Trenton Doyle Hancock’s world, Mike’s World, at the ICA


Michael Smith et al.
Doug and Mike’s Adult Entertainment, 1991-98, stage, puppets, backdrop and misc. props w/ video compilation, 19 mins.

If Mike’s World makes you think Wayne’s World, you’re not so far off. Like L for Loser.

“Mike,” like the two guys in Wayne’s World, is sooo not cool and at some level doesn’t really get what he’s up to. But there he is, in video after video, not really prospering in the middle of the SoHo real estate boom, losing money in an psychedelic lighting supply business for musical events, looking like a ne’er-do-well salesman peddling a New Age wellness center.

Michael Smith et al.

Mike’s World opened yesterday at the Institute of Contemporary Art to a crowd that plunged in and tumbled from television to puppet stage to disco room. It is one of two crowd-pleaser shows that opened Thursday night. The other is Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Wow That’s Mean and Other Vegan Cuisine. More on that below.

As for Mike’s World, this is not one of those art exhibits that evokes respectful puzzlement–the usual m.o. That’s because Mike’s World ain’t high-falutin’ aht. It is a place that’s totally familiar. It’s our world–sort of.

Michael Smith at the ICA
Michael Smith at the ICA

The artists behind Mike’s World are Michael Smith (he said it’s his real name when I asked), who created the persona and is the model for the persona, and Joshua White.

Smith has been doing a sort of comic performance art since the ’70s in venues as diverse as comedy clubs, Documenta 8, and Franklin Furnace.

Joshua White at the ICA
Joshua White at the ICA

White is a stage designer and light-show designer (think rock show and theater). He’s a light-show legend who created Joshua Light Show at the Fillmore East in the late ’60s, and designed trippy light shows for rock legends including Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

Michael Smith and Joshua White
Take Off Your Pants!, 2005
Kinetic sculpture with video, animation, lenticular photo, light boxes, diorama, and audio, 100 inches x 82 inches (diameter), couresty the artists, christine burgin gallery and dunn and brown contemporary

If there’s a format for popular culture/entertainment, “Mike” is there, but not, alas, on the cutting edge. His board game Take Off Your Pants! is a not-quite computer board game (that would be an oxymoron) that spins in a giant kiosk that looks like a carnival attraction (Smith said it’s his “reaction to always being in underwear. I’m always in underwear in front of the computer.”

And from that slightly uncomfortable place, he finds the satirical edge of what’s truly loopy, capturing trends, tastes, the conventional wisdom of moments in time, at once archiving them and turning them all against themselves. He captures a Western sunset and puts it to surfer music as it might be performed by Montovani Strings. He says things like, “I look out to the horizon and I see the future,” in the 6-minute Mike’s World Orientation Film, which greets everyone who enters the exhibit. Right off, we know where we are in this art world created by Mike. We’re about to hear a sales pitch for swamp-land vacation properties in Florida. We understand this is a serio-comic exploration of the American Dream.

“Mike” captures the hucksterism and optimism of Jeff Koons without the cool. A sweet guy, he lets you in on his jokes, and he’s an unapologetic persona, whereas Koons is Koons. Unlike Koons, Mike represents all of us and is vulnerable.

Smith and White spoke a little at the opening night walk-through, along with exhibit curator Annette DiMeo Carlozzi. Carlozzi is the curator of American and Contemporary Art at the Blanton Museum of Art, where the exhibition originated at the University of Texas at Austin.

Here’s some of the info they shared:

Michael Smith
Michael Smith, Wall of Mike, detail from a wall of caricatures of Mike by Michael Smith’s friends

Wall of Mike, a wall of caricatures of Mike, were created by Smith’s friends and posted on the wall to look like a wall at Sardi’s, the New York eatery and celebrity watering hole. Set after set in the exhibit looks deliberately familiar–a family room with striped rug that sometimes appears on the monitor, looking for all the world like static lines across the tv. The Government Approved Home Fallout Shelter/Snack Bar is the actual recreation of a government fall-out shelter, made with cinder block and OSHA yellow walls. “You can send away for the plan,” Carlozzi said.

Michael Smith and Mark Fischer
Michael Smith and Mark Fischer, Mike Builds a Shelter, 1985, color video with sound

Re the QuinQuag Arts and Wellness Centre Touring Exhibition, White said, “We took Mike and put him in a real scenario based on real things [golly, maybe he really said this about the Soho real estate deal]. …It was Mike’s bad idea for a wellness center on the site of an old arts colony. It’s a traveling exhibit for raising money.” The installation includes a fundraising video, an architect’s model of the vision for the land, a display of tiles made as a crafts project by the “residents,” a fundraising tree with brass leaves inscribed with donor names, etc. etc.

Michael Smith and Joshua White
Michael Smith and Joshua White, QuinQuang Arts and Wellness Center Touring Exhibition detail (model of the center as envisioned by Mike and fundraising video)

As for the ambient noise in the exhibit, Smith said, “You get used to the sound.”

The exhibit includes vitrines with books and ephemera from the life of Mike. Usually that’s a show killer for me. But not here. The work transcended the deadly vitrines, and I found myself engrossed in the comic book, the art of Mike as a child, and the clothes all inscribed with Mike’s name.

Michael Smith
One of the items in the vitrines includes a drawing with Mike in his shelter.

Others who contributed to Mike’s World are Mark Bingham, Power Boothe, Mark Fischer, Alan Herman, Howard Mandel, Kevin Noble, R. Sikoryak, Doug Skinner and William Wegman.

Trenton Doyle Hancock

Trenton Doyle Hancock talking at the ICA
Trenton Doyle Hancock, still sporting his 3-D glasses, speaks to an opening night crowd. Next to the artist’s left elbow is his large drawing Vegan Meat Training, 1999, graphite on paper, collection of Jeanne and Michael Klein

After all that exuberance, it takes a mighty artist to follow. But Trenton Doyle Hancock and his exhibit Wow That’s Mean and Other Vegan Cuisine is up to the task.

Like Smith and White, Hancock is creating an alternate world with a serio-comic anti-hero at its center. But Hancock’s anti-hero was birthed in the world of comics and the Manichean struggle between good and evil (oh, btw Hancock’s father is a minister).

Trenton Doyle Hancock
FLAFLAFLAFLARRY, 2008, graphite and acrylic on paper, courtesy of the artist, James Cohan Gallery and Dunn and Brown Contemporary. This is one of the mounds.

But good and evil here is not defined by any political correctness. The bad guys are the vegans who are the wife and children of the good guy, an ape who can’t keep his pants zipped. He falls in love with a field of colorful flowers; moved by their beauty, he masturbates and seeds the flowers with his sperm, creating earthbound mound people–half human, half plant–who are red meat inside. The ape’s character reminds me a little of Homer Simpson.

Hancock has been mining his epic tale of a culture at war with itself since his MFA days at Tyler (he grew up in Paris, TX, and lives and works in Houston, now). His most recent iteration of his heroic tale is a ballet, The Cult of Color, (the sets were fabricated at the Fabric Workshop and Museum) for Ballet Austin. “It was really surreal. I thought I was prepared to see it, but I really wasn’t,” Hancock said, after his talk about his exhibit.

Trenton Doyle Hancock
Flower Bed II: A Prelude to Damnation, 9 color screen printed wallpaper w/ fluorescent ink, detail.

The exhibit includes a black-light lit ramp covered in hand-silk-screened wallpaper covered with mounds and words in obsessive, overwhelming pattern. Viewed through the 3-D glasses provided, the red meat elements pop right off the wall. Again, the opening night crowd was enchanted, reaching out for what they knew was a visual illusion. Hancock credited preparator and local artist Isaac Lin with the 3-D glasses idea, and in general thanked the ICA preparators for all their ideas, including their help with the wall colors in the upstairs gallery.

Trenton Doyle Hancock
Some of the meat kitsch with which Hancock decorated his installation.

With Assistant Curator Elyse Gonzales, Hancock talked about how his grad school roommates turned him against veganism. Hancock said he himself comes from the land of the meat eaters. It was trouble from the git-go.”They made banana tofu shakes in the morning (they were delicious) and left them out. By the end of the day they were covered with flies. …The only way I knew how to get back was to draw portraits of them.”

Trenton Doyle Hancock
The writings on the walls are anagrams made from the cut-outs of “Welcome” and “Thank You” in the dorm room welcome mats in the middle of the floor.

Hancock gave a little tour of some of the artifacts in the gallery space, based on his grad school apartment with the vegans, invisioned as a battlefield, including a mural of Combat on the old Atari 600 (“I would lose every time.”) and a Connect 4 set-up (“A game of the mind. He wasn’t beating me.”) The beautiful drawings on the walls –“My way of getting back over and over in drawings for the rest of time.”

These two shows my favorite ICA exhibits in a while. Check them out.

(Trisha Donnelly is held over from the last group of exhibits. I didn’t get it last time. I still don’t. But it sure does contrast to these two pop-culture-inspired exhibits).


ica, joshua white, michael smith, trenton doyle hancock



Sign up to receive Artblog’s weekly updates and monthly Our Picks sent directly to your inbox.

Subscribe Today!

Send this to a friend