655 Pennsylvania Ave. SE is an enigmatic little building. It’s attached to a CVS around the corner, but the original mint green storefront, once the home of a dive called Lil’ Pub, remains intact. Within the big picture window is an array of avian art: prints and framed watercolors, a folk-artsy wood carving of a mother cardinal on a branch with her two chicks, a cage holding a sculptural bird, even taxidermied critters.
Next to the window is a door, but it’s marked “sorry, no entry;” it only leads to the window. Even if you could squeeze in, the space is so shallow you’d be beak to beak with those birds—not exactly ideal conditions for viewing the artwork. Yet the only clue to what it all means is a tiny label on the bottom right of the window that marks this strange location as Triple Candie Gallery.
Around D.C. these days, pop-up galleries, murals on wooden boards, or limited run immersive experiences are plentiful. Art is seemingly everywhere, but it’s typically well-advertised and adorned with QR codes and social media handles. This gallery is curiously devoid of context or promotion; if anyone cares enough to find out what the hell is happening at 655 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, they’re going to have to hunt for it. As it turns out, there’s a whole lot of backstory and history crammed into this miniature gallery (where the birds display will be up through the end of May).
Founded at the end of 2001 in Harlem, Triple Candie is the brainchild of husband and wife team Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett. It started out conventionally enough for a nonprofit gallery of the time, tapping artists they knew from the area to show their work. “We had shows with African American artists from the neighborhood and nobody came,” Bancroft says. “Nobody cared.” They carried on anyhow, hoping to continue their unconventional mission of showing a mix of established and emerging artists (most galleries at the time focused on one or the other). Over the first few years, they received some acclaim for shows of artists like Sanford Biggers, Polly Apfelbaum, Kiki Smith, and Charles Gaines.
Things started to get a little weirder with their Anonymous Artist project in 2004, in which participants submitted works to a group show without their names attached; artists and gallerists both swore to never reveal which artists were involved. These experiments made it impossible to factor in the background or esteem of the producer, forcing it to be judged on its own merits. The idea was that artist biographies sometimes loomed over the work itself, and whoever’s hand made the works shouldn’t influence one’s opinion of it. This bit of teasing around authorship and upending art world norms was a taste of what was to come for Triple Candie.
The nature of the art world, not just in Harlem but globally, drastically changed within a few years of Triple Candie opening. Starting around 2003, following the uncertainty and recession of a post-9/11 art market, high end galleries sprang up, art fairs swallowed up the market, and the average price of work sold at auction skyrocketed. The network of neighborhood artists was still strong, but their aspirations (as well as the dollars they could command elsewhere) had grown bigger than Triple Candie, and the gallery struggled to get artists to show with them. “Artists became their own gatekeepers, even artists we knew personally,” Nesbett explains.
“We almost decided just to shut the gallery down, then we thought there’s gotta be another way to make it relevant,” Bancroft adds.
By 2006, the pair had stopped working directly with artists and, as Nesbett tells it, shifted in a more “educational” direction to “what we think our audience might value.” Instead of commissioning artists or shows, Triple Candie started creating reproductions of known artists’ work, concentrating on ideas, art movements, and what viewers take away from the experience rather than getting hung up on unique objects or the cult of personality around the artists themselves. “You would think, how far can that go?” Bancroft says. “But it actually takes us down this huge road of endless possibilities.”
Their first foray in this “educational” direction was an unauthorized hanging in their Harlem gallery of poor-quality photocopies of artist David Hammons’ work in 2006, dubbed The Unauthorized Retrospective. Hammons has a reputation for thumbing his nose at art world conventions and disappearing from the public eye for long stretches of time. Bancroft says, “it was kind of dissecting him, taking him off the pedestal, at the same time respecting him. Because we both loved his work so much.”
The Hammons show was followed by a set of recreations of the industrial sculptor Cady Noland’s work, with an accompanying catalog that noted where the materials that Triple Candie and a few hired fabricators used diverged from the originals.
These exhibits provoked strong reactions from visitors and critics alike. Jerry Saltz, long time art critic for the Village Voice and New York magazine, called the Hammons show “a slap in the face, an act of misguided love.” A friend of Noland’s came storming into the gallery one day yelling, “How could you do this to Cady!” Both shows also landed Triple Candie in Artforum’s Best of 2006 list and won over plenty more admirers.
Despite the fact that Triple Candie nearly always fabricates the objects in their exhibits themselves, they don’t consider themselves artists, or even curators, really. “We’re historians,” Nesbett says. “We always wanted to keep that distance. When the artist is our subject, we don’t want to talk to them, we don’t want to get emotionally involved with them, we don’t want them to influence how we might think about their work, like a critic.”
As Triple Candie notes, using replicas as an educational tool is common and accepted in museums focusing on all sorts of subject matter, such as history or science. “All the Smithsonian museums are here [in D.C.], they’re all making copies for narrative purposes. It’s taboo in the art world to do that,” Bancroft explains. Curators are expected to honor the intentions of the artist and resist editorializing, and “doing something that’s not sanctioned by the artist or the estate is the ultimate cardinal sin as a curator,” as Nesbett puts it. Under the banner of a conceptual art piece, they might have been forgiven their trespasses against art, but the people who put on the shows are expected to play by the rules.
Triple Candie defends the value of appropriating artworks, with Nesbett maintaining that “once you start dealing with artifacts and props, you also start to think about how things are valued differently and why, and how social histories are talked about or not.” The objects themselves aren’t precious—so much so that Triple Candie typically trashes most of what they produce when they wrap up a show. The concepts and art movements that are introduced to the audience are the things that really count.
The impudence of Triple Candie’s practice might suggest they’re like a giant pin puncturing the balloon of the art world, pointing at masterpieces and scoffing, “My kid could paint that!” when, in fact, both Bancroft and Nesbett have had long careers in curation and managing arts organizations that are nothing if not boosting of the arts. For many years they published Art on Paper magazine, and they compiled two books of contributions from art world luminaries, Letters to a Young Artist and Diaries of a Young Artist, all of which focus on uplifting the arts and artists featured. Since 2015, Nesbett has served as Keeper of Imaginative Futures (or executive director, if you want to be conventional) for the Washington Project for the Arts, a group that has, during his tenure, increased the variety of grants, resources, and types of support it offers artists. Bancroft admits that flippantly taking artists down a peg is, “this weird thing because all of our friends are artists.” This genuine appreciation and pleasure for art sits alongside the hijinks of Triple Candie.
In 2010 the couple packed up and moved to Philadelphia, switching their focus to long term research projects and traveling exhibits at spots like the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. One of the most notable projects from this era was a replica retrospective of the cheeky Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan (best known these days for taping a banana to the wall at Art Basel Miami Beach). Hosted at the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art in Athens, Greece, it was presented as a posthumous homage, even though the artist was very much alive, and even came to see the show.
Triple Candie’s Philadelphia location was about as close to home as Bancroft and Nesbett could get: It was literally in their yard. Bancroft says, “We had a vitrine in our backyard, and it was small and we turned it over every month.” In the spirit of other neighborhood residents who created displays in their living room windows, Triple Candie constructed a glass case in an overgrown alley and filled it with anonymous knick knacks and curios they constructed. They never officially promoted it, instead letting it be a novelty for passersby to happen upon and spread through word of mouth.
Five years later, Bancroft and Nesbett moved to D.C. and continued to do pop-ups and curated exhibits in other cities. They were the subjects of a 2017 retrospective survey at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts. They worked in collaboration with other organizations, and their exhibits were informed by the histories and spaces of the groups they worked with. During that time, “We longed for the ability to be more hands on, to have this thing more a part of our daily life,” Nesbett says.
In 2019, Triple Candie started looking for spaces near where they now live on Capitol Hill that could work for their next iteration. The CVS window “just kind of came available to us,” says Bancroft. They spent a couple years going back and forth with the CVS real estate team, eventually agreeing to keep their part of the building free of graffiti in exchange for use of the space. Triple Candie created their first local installation at the end of 2021. “A lot of what inspires us is it feels like it makes sense to us to activate,” says Bancroft.
The CVS window is a homecoming of sorts, and a much more subdued project, more akin to their backyard vitrine in Philadelphia than their Harlem gallery and museum shows. They turn over the display every month or so, and have started experimenting with new types of showcases. The bird exhibit, for example, was partially crowd-sourced from homes in the block behind the venue, rather than being totally fabricated by Triple Candie (though they made a few of the bird collages within).
Unlike much of contemporary art that is on the nose and extremely pointed in saying whatever it’s trying to say, Triple Candie’s work, which inspires curiosity or defies tidy explanations, is a novelty. As ever, Triple Candie is more concerned with asking questions than answering them, and fittingly enough, they’ve taken to referring to their projects not as displays or exhibits but as “riddles.”
D.C. may not have as strong of an appetite for conceptual art and questions of curatorial ethics as New York, but Triple Candie’s offerings have often been confounding or inscrutable even to those working with a knowledge of art history. Nesbett says, “What’s best for us is if a person who knows absolutely nothing about it finds pleasure in it. If it raises a few basic questions about why am I looking at this and why was it put together. If we can hit on that while at the same time somebody who’s thought a lot about the history of objects, the philosophy of aesthetics also finds value in it, if we can hit both audiences at the same time, that’s the ideal.”