The New York Times, March 5, 2010
Art in Review: Back to Haunt the Hell Out of You, The Splendid and Bragadocious Raven Chanticleer
By Holland Cotter
A few years back Triple Candie, a genuinely alternative space, created a fictional artist named Lester Hyes, cooked up some sculpture it identified as his and gave him a retrospective. The artist Raven Chanticleer, the subject of the gallery's present show, also sounds like an invention, and in a way he was. He invented himself.
He was born James Watson in South Carolina in 1928 and claimed to have grown up in Harlem. By his account he studied design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, then at the Sorbonne and became Bergdorf Goodman's first African-American couturier. He then opened his own shop where, he claimed, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and Big Maybelle Smith were among his clients. (He specialized in clothes for plus-size women.)
Creative truth telling was part of his charm. Did he really work on the film versions of "Hello, Dolly!" and "The Wiz"? And if he did, in what capacity? As a designer? An actor? A dancer?
Judging by photographs and written accounts, he was never not designing, acting and dancing. He definitely dressed to impress (kente cloth and plaid). For transport to a theater opening, he hired a horse and carriage. As a guest at celebrity parties, he usually stage-managed a personal spin in the limelight.
Considering the attention he gave to shaping his persona, it makes sense that he would want to shape those of others twoo, which may have been one reason he opened the African-American Wax Museum in one of his two Harlem brownstones. Most of the personalities enshrined there were charismatic popular heroes, from harriet Tubman to Magic Johnson. He molded their figures himself, dressed them, arranged their display and invited the public--for a fee--to see them. The museum was neer a block-buster, but it acquired a certain buzz. The Amsterdam News wrote it up; so did Italian Vogue.
After Chanticleer's death in 2002, his family, which was religious and probably suspected him of being gay, closed the museum and putthe brownstones up for sale. Inquiries about the fate of the wax figures went unanswered. In 2005 the photographer Nikki Johnson managed to get brief access to the room where they were stored, jumbled together, and the pictures she took are disturbing and moving.
The documents that make up the show--photographs and news clips attached directly to a gallery wall--leave no doubt that Chanticleer was serious about this museum as a hand-made preserve of black history. And Triple Candie is clearly serious about preserving his history. His wax sculptures are long trashed, so to suggest their central place in his life, Triple Candie has made a few papier-mache pieces of its own, depicting contemporary Harlem personalities: Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem; the historian Michael Henry Adams (who is working on a book called "Homo Harlem"); and the Oscar noinee Mo'Nique.
But there's never a question of who the real star is. In a taped radio interview playing in the gallery, Chanticleer addresses the subject of immortality. "Just in case something should happen to me," he says, "if they don't carry out my dreams of this wax museum, I would come back and haunt the hell out of them." And so he has.