New York Amsterdam News, January 28 - February 3, 2010
THE 'SPLENDID' LIFE OF A HARLEM ORIGINAL CELEBRATED AT TRIPLE CANDIE
By Damaso Reyes
It's not the straight lines but the curves in life that makes things interesting. Few galleries appreciate this more than Triple Candie in Harlem, and their new show, "Back to Haunt the Hell Out of You: The Splendid and Bragadocious Raven Chanticleer (1928-2002)," is a testament to a life lived unusually.
Chanticleer was a Harlem fixture for decades and most well known, at least in the art world, for his Harlem African American Wax Museum, which he operated from 1989 until his death in 2002. Chanticleer created all the sculptures himself and the work had a kitschy quality to it, but the idea behind the museum -- to honor the great contributors to African-American life -- came as a response to a trip the artist took to Madam Tussaud's famous museum, where he didn't see a single Black face among the dozens that had been immortalized.
"We feel a certain affinity with Raven and his wax museum for the simple reason that it seemed to mask a mischievous knowingness with a willful naivete. On the surface the museum was folksy. The statues, all made by Raven himself, were pretty good, or rather, good enough. They didn't have to be great. The mere fact that they existed at all was good enough," said Triple Candie co-curator Peter Nesbett.
"There were seemingly quirky aspects about the museum that evidence a certain slyness on Raven's part. For one, he didn't seem to be too concerned with historical accuracy. In fact, he appeared to revel in the undermining of it, dressing Frederick Douglass in a 20th-century business suit and layinga Kwanza scarft around the neck of Booker T. Washington," he added.
Nesbett and Shelly Bancroft, Triple Candie's founder and co-curator, encountered Chanticleer several times when they first moved to Harlem to open their gallery. "We saw Raven a couple times at community meetings and he really stood out," Bancroft recalled in an interview. They were intrigued by him and his work but never managed to visit the museum, which was located in his Harlem brownstone and kept irregular hours. After his death, the curators contacted his family and estate about the possibility of having a show in tribute to his work but were never successful. Within a few years his work was destroyed and his home sold off, leaving a legacy only documented by press clippings, a few images, and the memories of friends and admirers.
The exhibition does a wonderful job of recreating the world that Chanticleer lived in with reproduced articles, photographs, as well as lengthy written testimonials of friends of this Harlem original. There is even an audio interview with Chanticleer, without which the viewer would have a much less profound appreciation of what made this artist so special. The paper-mache recreations on display are definitely in the spirit of Chanticleer, even if they lack the charm of his work. They stand as totems to what we've lost when those unique pieces of craft art were destroyed by a family who clearly did not appreciate the legacy that was left in their trust. This show is not to be missed.