, February 12, 2009


By Chris Bors

When Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett started the nonprofit gallery Triple Candie in 2001, they weren't intending to raise controversy. The 5,000-square-foot warehouse space was well suited for large solo projects, multimedia work, and experimental installations, and Triple Candie quickly established itself as one of three prominent contemporary art venues in Harlem, the others being the Studio Museum and the Project (which later moved to 57th Street). Early notable exhibitions included "Living Units," a group exhibition of domestic enivronments curated with Omar Lopez-Chahoud; a Sanford Biggers solo show for which he created a 40-by-20-foot sand painting; and David Humphrey's "Snowman in Love," featuring 12-foot-tall, commercially manufactured inflatable snowmen.

In 2006 the gallery took a provocative new direction when it idecided to present two exhibitions consisting of re-creations of artworks by well-known artists mounted without their permission. "David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective," consisting of photocopies of the artist's work from Web sites, catalogs, and brochures, was followed by "Cady Noland Approximately," a fake survey of the notoriously reclusive artist's oeuvre that used copies of her work made by Triple Candie and four other artists. Noland—who had stated that she doesn't want her work shown in public and asked galleries to remove it from shows—garnered a great deal of sympathy as a result of the project, incluing from such critics as the Village Voice's Jerry Saltz, who suggested she sue the gallery.

Indeed many have had similar reactions to Bancroft and Nesbett's strategy of forgoing artists in creating their exhibitions, but one thing can't be denied: The two have made a bold statement that at the very least deserves considered analysis. Rather than cheerleading for artists and boosting careers, Triple Candie has taken the lonelier path of challenging the art world by turning tradition on its head.

When the gallery had to close last year for its landlord to do work on the building, it wasn't clear what the future held for the endeavor. But on February 15, Triple Candie returns, in a new space at 500 West 148th Street, just west of Amsterdam Avenue.

On the even of the gallery's relaunch, ARTINFO sat down with the husband-and-wife team, who are also the co-publishers of artonpaper magazine, to discuss the future of Triple Candie and its controversial past.

Shelly and Peter, how will the new space differ from the original

The new space is one-third the size of the original. The size of the first Triple Candie dictated so much of what we did and also gave it a kind of grandeur that this new space doesn't quite have. But our mission is going to stay the same. We are still going to be creating shows without artists, building installations that have to do with art, but not actually showing art, and making it more about education and art history.

What is the first exhibition?

We are opening with an exhibition of floral still-life "paintings" that we bought at El Mundo, a big economy department store around the corner from the new Triple Candie. The paintings are sold as anonymous objects without authors, dates, or histories. In fact, they are reproductions of lesser-known Old Master paintings that somewhere in the distribution channel—between China and Harlem—lost their identities. In that way, the exhibition will tie into our "Anonymous Artist Projects" from 2004 and 2005.

Our second show will be a Picasso retrospective that doesn't include any real Picassos. That would be impossible to realize in Harlem; probably only MoMA and a few high-end commercial galleries could organize it. We're going to create surrogates of the Picasso artworks, probably large pieces of cardboard cut to the scale of the actual paintings with a small reproduction taped to each. To anyone visiting the gallery, it will look like an exhibition in the midst of being installed—the moment right before the artwork arrives. We will be waiting for it to arrive for the entire show.

What was your mission when you started Triple Candie in 2001?

We stated with a strange idea that maybe was ahead of its time, to be a staellite space for other onprofits across the country to come in and do programming. We would be acting as a vessel helping to produce the shows, but these organizations would be curating them, and on top of it paying a fee to keep our organization going. It didn't work. People misunderstood it as a pay-to-play venue where anyone who could pay could show there. So we moved on to a more traditional way of working as a nonprofit. We wrote grants, found stipends for artists, and commissioned installations. That changed as we continued to rethink what we were doing, and continued to the see the nonprofit alternative space movement die a sort of slow death.

Did you anticipate the critical backlash to your re-creations of artists' work?

The David Hammons show was the first we did along those lines, and we had no idea what to expect. One critic had a strong negative response right off the bat, and that had us thinking, "O god, this is going to be really bad." The reactions were very black and white; people either really liked it or had a hard time. David Cohen from the New York Sun committed to writing a review sight unseen because he wanted to review a David Hammons's show, but when he actually saw the exhibition, he decided he wouldn't dare review it. He felt like he was duped, although we were very clear and honest about what it was about. He sent us a very angry email about it saying that he thought the show was arrogant. That set the intial tone for us. We developed a tough skin around the fact that critics would object. We didn't want that to deter what we were doing. But most visitors had an overwhelmingly positive response, I think in part because it was an exercise in wish-fulfillment. People were so hungry to get a better understanding of the development of Hammon's work, and our show seemed to have been done in his spirit.

Why did you choose Hammons and Noland? Did you ever hear from either of them about your shows?

They are both very elusive, evasive artists who have high profiles in the art world but are very controlling of their work, which makes it difficult for most people to actually see it in person. Both of the shows were about celebrating the work, which we love, and not about the idea of reproduction. The fact that we presented the surrogates for actual work—in the former, copies and internet printouts; in the latter, sculptural approximations—merely was a means to an end. We didn't hear from either one of them, although they had representatives come as spies.

What was your goal with those projects and why did you abandon curating more traditional exhibitions?

Part of it was about the art world and how we felt powerless in it. If we wanted to work with a particular artist, say David Hammons, we knew that we couldn't, and we became increasingly frustrated by that. We felt that the only we we could do what we wanted was to take back some of the control we had given away. So we created something completely different by using the detritus of the art world to tell our own story.

You have created shows that you call "exhibitions about art that are devoid of artwork." What do you hope to gain by tweaking the established exhibition models of most spaces?

Our program is decidedly anti-material and anti-market. We are very much against the fixation and festishization of the object. These are meant to be ephemeral exhibitions, and we recycle most of the material from show to show. It's fundamentally abou tthis sort of fleeting temporary experience, dealing with issue sof art history. A lot of our shows were realized when the market was going through unprecedented growth. The greed we saw in the art world was coulpled with the greed we were seeing in th esociety at large, so we tried to do shows that shifted the emphasis. Because we saw artists as complicit with the problems we are seeing, we were motivated not to work with them.

Do you think of Triple Candie as a work of art in itself?

A gallery can be more than just a place to show art, but no, we don't think of ourselves as artists. We're really thinking from an institutional level. Because the program is fairly unusual and we're thinking of it in a holistic way, people might be tempted to think of it as a conceptual art project, but we think of it in institutional and curatorial terms.

Since the two of you are white, have you encountered any resistance for opening a gallery in what is still a predominantely black community? How has this shaped the projects you have presented and will continue to present?

When we first moved to Harlem in 2000, we definitely stood out. People were suspicious when they cam in; some were angry and wanted to know why we were here. To them we might have looked like two little rich kids coming in an gentrying the area, yet we felt as though we were participatinging in the neighborhood. As time went on and more people saw the shows and realized that we were very seriou sand sincere about what we were doing, that attitude changed. Providing access to work that one wouldn't normally see in central Harlem was really important to us. I think that as we developed trust with people they began to appreciate what we were trying to do.


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