If a Sculpture Falls in an Empty Gallery, and Nobody Hears It....
That course has included an unauthorized retrospective of work by David Hammons ("composed entirely of photocopied catalog illustrations of that elusive artist’s work') and a highly controversial exhibition of replicas of work by the strongly anti-establishment artist Cady Noland (see descriptions for both on this page of the space's website). And yet, despite some heavy-handed feedback for those exhibitions, founders Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett (full disclosure: whom I've been friends with for years) continue to push the envelope, keeping the dialog honest and interesting, as they do.
The word is that, with the art industry so flush, nonprofit alternative spaces are thriving. And why shouldn’t they be? Some of them now look all but indistinguishable from commercial galleries.
White Columns in Chelsea recently devoted its space to a survey of 2006 art season highlights from distinctly for-profit Chelsea galleries. The SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens, is currently giving over its main space to a large-scale piece, already shown elsewhere, by Monica Bonvicini, an Italian artist who has been thoroughly vetted and long supported by the international establishment.
But aren’t alternative spaces where we should look for introductions to new or commercially unrepresented or undervalued or lost careers? Or for projects too impractical or arcane or outré to find a mainstream platform? Isn’t the alternative space, by definition, where the possibility of failure is written into the mandate, and where a record for risking failure is not only a gauge of institutional success but also the justification for existence?
There are, of course, small alternative spaces in the city that are doing things not being done elsewhere, staying strange and risking, among other things, critical heat. Triple Candie in Harlem is one. Established in 2001, it offered in its first few years fairly traditional solo and group shows, often of artists either locally underknown (Charles Gaines) or unaffiliated (Rodney McMillian). Lately, though, it has been trying something different. The gallery has begun to take a less orthodox course.
Their latest is an exhibition of work by Lester Hayes. Who?, you ask. Don't worry, you shouldn't know him. If you have time, you really should stop reading here and instead read the Times article first...
But it doesn't make sense for me to try to summarize, let alone improve, upon the fine job Mr. Cotter has done in setting up this idea, so I'll just cut to the chase:
[T]here is no Lester Hayes. He never existed. He is entirely an invention of Triple Candie. The gallery’s directors, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, the co-publishers of the magazine Art on Paper, who assembled the Hammons survey from photocopies and the Noland from replicas, cobbled together all the “Hayes” work from scrap material and cooked up the detailed biography to go with it.Invented artists are not new, of course. "John Dogg," whose work "was widely assumed, but never confirmed, to have been made by [Colin] de Land and the artist Richard Prince," is a classic example, but Bancroft and Nesbett, who are not artists and will tell you so, seemingly made a point of exhibiting "art" by the imaginary Lester Hayes that shouldn't really fool anyone:
Like Triple Candie's previous exhibitions, this one serves to raise a series of fascinating (and I'd say important questions), but one question that I'm not sure they'd intentionally invite is whether or not it's important to actually go see this exhibition. I mean, it's clearly important that they installed an exhibition and that the context provide for the opportunity for some viewers, at least, to assume the work is legit, but once you realize what's going on, can't you debate the questions it raises from the comfort of a bar or via the Internets, without having to see the "fake" work? There is the apparently well-written psuedo-biography of the fake artist in the space, and the details of that life never lived provide interesting fodder for debate as well, but in general...why look at the fake work if it's admittedly not "art"? That is, other than to congratulate Triple Candie on another thought-provoking exhibition, of course. :-)
So, with no real artist and no real art, what do you have here? You have many questions raised about art and the often unquestioned ideas surrounding it, like originality, authenticity, influence, history, formal value and biography-as-value. Is contemporary art largely a promotional scam perpetuated by — in no particular order of blame — museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam to want to keep it afloat?
If you are affected — moved, amused, provoked — by the assembled Hayes oeuvre, then is it art? Are Ms. Bancroft and Mr. Nesbett artists? (They would certainly say no.) Are they themselves perpetrators of a scam? Or are they critical thinkers working in an alternative direction to the market economy? Imagine the consequences if lots of people started creating “fake” art without acknowledging what they were up to? The whole art-as-investment illusion would evaporate. The market would crumble. Art myths could no longer be trusted. The Triple Candie’s Hayes biography, in other words, is spun largely from myths and clichés that sell art and artists today.
At the beginning of this post, I noted that what Mr. Cotter covers in his review is only part of the story up at Triple Candie at the moment. On their website is listed another, perhaps even more controversial (and I assume unauthorized) installation in their project space. Titled "The Matthew Higgs Society," it appears to be a ribbing of fellow alternative space director, Matthew Higgs:
Established in 2006, the Matthew Higgs Society is the largest organization devoted to a living U.S.-based curator and is dedicated to promoting Higgs' legacy through education, outreach, and advocacy. The Society meets regularly at bi-monthly opening receptions at White Columns in the West Village, New York City, and on a more frequent basis at art fairs, galleries, and museums around the world.
Our current initiatives include the creation of The Matthew Higgs Archive, consisting of press clippings that mention Higgs by name and photographs of him at art openings. In time, we hope that the Archive will have its own dedicated gallery at White Columns. We also plan to organize symposia celebrating Higgs' achievements.
I find myself almost afraid to laugh at this, not being sure whether Higgs is a willing participant in the fun here, and I could pick up the phone and call Shelly and Peter and ask, but then that's obviously not their intention with the average visitor to their website, I'm assuming, so I'll run with an incipient impression. Even as I chuckled here (because Mr. Higgs has been in the art news a good deal the past year), context is critical to whether this is mean-spirited or not. Triple Candie and White Columns are both competing for the same audience to a large degree, if not the same funding. Furthermore, is it OK to criticize one's competition so openly, regardless of whether it's an honest, heartfelt critique? In the commercial art world, I would consider it taboo to do so. But why? Am I too timid? Should those of us committed to open dialog accept that sometimes that dialog isn't going to be flattering to all concerned?
One thing's for sure, Triple Candie continues to boldly go where no art space (that I know of) has gone before.