Just as Rhode Island is neither road nor island, Triple Candie is an art space that neither shows art nor (since recently leaving their Harlem gallery) has a space. Curated by husband and wife team Shelley Bancroft and Peter Nesbitt, Triple Candie is a titty-twister of an institution, wheedling an art world that buys, sells, collects and exhibits the works of the mythical genius-artist. Rather than standard group-or-solo exhibitions of traditional art objects, Triple Candie uses copies, reproductions and common objects to "perform creation" as "an institution of critique." Since 2001, among many other moments of prank brilliance, the team has shown the work of fictional artist Lester Hayes, exhibited broken bottles and rocks for the show 36 Objects Thrown in Violent Incidents, and installed a Bill Viola video upside down on purpose.
Now in gallery-space limbo, Bancroft and Nesbitt (who helms the print culture magazine Art on Paper) gave a talk on Tuesday night at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies called "What's the problem with Triple Candie?" Bancroft and Nesbitt donned barrister wigs and sat in judgment of their own curatorial practice, declaring that Triple Candie has not just one problem but several: Triple Candie does not show art or work with artists; Triple Candie makes exhibitions of artists' work without the artists' permission; Triple Candie acts more like a creator than a presenter; Triple Candie could be called delusional.
Triple Candie started out in 2001, showing commissioned works from individual artists, such as Sanford Bigger's sand-mandala-like 40' x 20' prayer rug and Rodney MacMillian's installation of 53 found mattresses. The insouciant impermanence of these projects typifies Bancroft and Nesbitt's curatorial practice: a sustained meditation on the ephemeral, the found, the misrepresented.
Triple Candie's turning point came in 2004, when a steamy art market made it more difficult for them to commission the artists they wanted. After a show of all-anonymous installation, Triple Candie stopped showing art: that is, stopped showing precious art objects made by artists and became, instead, a kind of spatial magazine, a form of criticism that uses exhibition instead of text. The shows that followed, made of the copies and found things Bancroft and Nesbitt call "surrogates," dramatize their own power to put objects in a space and generate meaning, as curators, historians, educators, and (as they say over and over again) non-artists.
In the show The Social Lives of Things, Triple Candie solicited from friends objects "they have kept, not discarded, which have no real practical use," and installed them with museum-style tags, in a riff on the concept that a gallery space can create order out of fragments. "It's about class and access," says Nesbitt of another query of context, the exhibition Museo de Reproducciones Fotograficas, a wall of 1,200 reproduced art images that Bancroft and Nesbitt sliced out of their own book collection. Every image was numbered and catalogued, comprising Triple Candie's "permanent collection." Bancroft notes, with little irony, "we treat them very much like precious objects." 19th-century "copy museums," an inspiration for the show, are a useful blueprint for Triple Candie's own method.
More controversial were the "ersatz" exhibitions that showed "artist's works without the artist's permission." Triple Candie recreated the installations of artist Cady Nolan (Cady Nolan Approximately, 2006) using only information found on Google, yielding replicas Bancroft calls "failed" and "eerie." Fancy art people were incensed; the pair describes how DIA curator Lane Cook showed up at the gallery, refused to identify herself, and tried to rip them a new one. In an unauthorized retrospective of reclusive Harlem artist David Hammons, who notoriously shows only in "blue-chip" galleries, Bancroft and Nesbitt xeroxed every example of Hammons's work they could find in the MoMA library, to provide public access to the art, "however mediated." The pair notes that the series of 100 copies was the largest retrospective of Hammons' work to date. They call the show "a non-art experience of comparable value," and the issue of value is crucial: both shows forced the visitor to question the value of an 'original' art object and its (mis)representation in a gallery.
In a series of shows that champion the recontextualized object, the exhibition Undoing the Ongoing Bastardization of the Migration of the Negro, is the kink in this straight line gambit: it was, essentially, a spatial essay on the sanctity of the 60-panel Migration Series by famous African American painter Jacob Lawrence, which many art institutions have presented only in bits and pieces. Triple Candie presented reproductions of the whole series alongside posters lambasting other arts institutions for splitting it up. The team compares the fragmentation of the narrative painting series to "ripping chapters out of a book," which is ironic, given that they ripped 1,200 images out of books for the Museo exhibition. When questioned about this tension, Nesbitt told the Independent that a major motivation for the show was to counteract the public perception that Triple Candie always "misrepresented artists." He explains that they were "hyperaware" of the "issue of trying to correct" the fragment "versus trying to echo it," that their "whole experiment is so conditional that way." Perhaps another reason for such an uncharacteristic campaign for wholeness is that Nesbitt literally wrote the book on Jacob Lawrence (The Essential Jacob Lawrence, Univ. of Washington, 2000, 258p.) and didn't want it sliced up.
The difference between the treatment of text and visual media is one question at the heart of Triple Candie's project. One way Bancroft and Nesbitt describe their work is as historians who make shows to wage the "criticism more commonly found in text," (as in their magazine Art on Paper): this is Triple Candie's genius. Wearing the barrister wigs foregrounds the fact that even if, as they insist again and again, they "are not artists," they are indeed performers: of history, education, ideas. In so explicitly donning a wig and playing a role, Nesbitt and Bancroft draw playful attention to their status as actors in the system of creative and cultural production.
And it's an "aversion to rampant materialism" in this system, and their status as a not-for-profit, that informs much of Triple Candie's program of lambasting a greedy art world. In the case of the Hammons show, for example, the team explains how the threat of copyright laws was significantly reduced by the fact that no money changed hands in the process of the show's creation. And like the paper ephemera so common in its work, the institutional structure of Triple Candie is purposefully impermanent. There are only four members on the board, including Nesbitt and Bancroft, who has double votes so the team can shut the operation down at any time, unlike many not-for-profits who "don't know how to stop."
So what, if anything, is the real problem with Triple Candie? Despite Nesbitt's claims that he wants Triple Candie to be like "a really good family-run restaurant," their credo of "localism" seems to fall short. A mural outside the old Harlem space, praising Jesus Christ, is actually based on one of the clippings from the Museo exhibition, but looks so much like other religious murals in Harlem that its intellectual aim comes off as glib. And that Nesbitt and Bancroft don't seem to recognize the other alternative art spaces that similarly play with ephemera, found objects, and fictional exhibits, like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and Proteus Gowanus (among others), suggests that they've placed themselves too far outside the realm of cultural production to see that they're actually not alone.
At the end of the talk, Nesbitt and Bancroft showed a short video of the last few moments they spent in their old gallery, in which Bancroft walks around the empty room, trying to "capture the spirit" of the space with a funnel and a plastic jar. At the end of the day, what saves Triple Candie from seeming sanctimonious or mean-spirited or cloying is that it has a tongue in its cheek and a wig on its head.
Triple Candie is slated to reopen soonish in New York.
alt_EMILY SEGAL B'10 is deeply true.