From time to time the Walker invites outside voices to share perspectives on art and culture. Today, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, who together run Philadelphia-based Triple Candie, share their thoughts on Donelle Woolford, a work in the 2014 Whitney Biennial that featured a fictitious African American artist performing a 1977 Richard Pryor stand-up routine. A creation of the white artist Joe Scanlan, Donelle Woolford’s inclusion prompted the YAMS collective to withdraw from the biennial. As guest writers, Bancroft and Nesbett’s opinions do not reflect those of the Walker Art Center.
We first learned of the project and met Joe in 2006 when he stopped in to our Harlem gallery to see a show we had curated on a fictional artist named Lester Hayes. As it turned out, Joe and his wife lived near us in Harlem, and in time we started socializing. Woolford, at that point, was but a shadow of her later self. Some two years later, we commissioned a short text for art on paper, a magazine we owned, to begin to critically unpack the project. It was the first text written about Woolford in a US magazine. After that, we more or less forgot about her.
Woolford came back into our life this past February when the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit informed us that they had booked Woolford’s Dick’s Last Stand routine to coincide with an exhibition we had curated there titled James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death. And in Minneapolis in early July—a month after Woolford performed at Midway Contemporary Art—we heard that Lester Hayes was being cited in conversations about Woolford.
We are critical of Joe’s project, but we aren’t summarily dismissive. Aspects of it bring to the surface essential conditions of the contemporary art experience. These include the scripting of value-producing biographical narratives (e.g. the fetishization of birthplaces, or the pretensions of multi-city residency), the exhuming and critical reevaluation of history, the prop as artwork and the artwork as prop, the exhibition as stage-set, and the combination of all these elements into a performative gesamtkunstwerk that may or may not involve the presence of an actor. Despite the relationship these issues have to our own work, and our appreciation for many of Joe’s other projects, some things just don’t sit right with us here. It is hard to put it in words but we think the problems have to do with context, communication, and commerce.
Let’s start with context. Woolford was conceived in a pedagogical culture (Yale University’s School of Art, where Joe was then teaching) that values aesthetic autonomy over social considerations, as Coco Fusco pointed out in The Brooklyn Rail. Her career was then nurtured by museums and galleries—specifically, Galerie Valentin in Paris, Wallspace in Chelsea—that espouse similar values and promote a certain academic conceptualism that reinforces the aesthetics and cultural values of privilege (a lingering WASP-y penchant for double-speak and understatement?). For this reason alone, the cries of minstrelsy heard from some are likely to haunt this project for years to come. It isn’t simply that this is a white artist ventriloquizing a black-actor-playing-a-black-artist, but rather that this performance is being presented in settings that have, intentionally or not, mostly white audiences. If the project had made its way to the 2014 Whitney Biennial via a different route, the fundamental social and ethical tensions would still be there, but they might have played out differently.
As for the issue of communication: From the start, Joe was cagey with the public about his relationship to Woolford. For her solo debut in Paris, in 2007, the press released noted both that Woolford was “a narrative by Joe Scanlan” and that she had served as his alter-ego for a period of years. But for Woolford’s New York debut the following year, Joe wanted the audience to experience the exhibition without knowing either that she was fictitious or that she was his creation. The press release made no mention of Joe, and when we attended the opening reception he asked that we not shatter the illusion for other attendees. Anyone paying close attention that night would have recognized that something was unusual. For example, as we were chatting with Woolford, trying to break the actor out of character (we couldn’t), she suddenly excused herself and another woman claiming to be Donelle Woolford took her place and continued our conversation. The experience was uncanny, but it wasn’t enough to communicate to a visitor that neither woman was who she said she was, or that they had both been cast by an artist named Joe Scanlan.
Similarly, when the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit booked Woolford for her Richard Pryor routine, its curator of public programs did so through a man named Joe Scanlan, who said he was Woolford’s agent. What the curator, who has a background in music and film, learned about Woolford was that she was an artist participating in the Whitney Biennial, that she was born in Detroit, and that she was doing a national performance tour. Joe didn’t tell him that Woolford herself was an act, and the curator didn’t think to ask.
The reason we find this problematic is that it reinforces rather than effectively critiques codes of behavior based on insider knowledge that are used to accumulate or maintain power, for social and economic benefit. In other words, the Woolford project has two audiences: a club of the initiated who know of the fiction and those who experience it naively—those who are in on the joke and those who are its butt. In that sense, the project divides. Divisive projects aren’t in and of themselves bad—we would agree with the art historian Claire Bishop on that—but projects can divide through open provocation or through the revelation of a deceit, and we think that people, even artists, have an ethical responsibility to commit to their position and own their actions. If you chose deceive, don’t ever let anyone know.
Friends of ours have countered this criticism by pointing to the issue of Aprior magazine published in Belgium in 2007 in which Joe talked with Raimundas Malašauskas about Woolford and was photographed with her, or the article we commissioned in art on paper. The argument is that Joe let the cat was out of the bag long ago and that anyone who did a little research could easily learn the back story. That is true, but our response is that these sources of information are consumed by few—let’s face it, the audience for Aprior magazine in the US is a tiny segment of an already small segment of gallery-goers and people who read certain art magazines. Even within the various art worlds of privilege, there is an invisible velvet rope separating those in the know from those not in the know.
This all begs the commerce question: “Is it OK to monetize deceit?” The obvious answer is no, but this case isn’t so obvious. Those who are buying Woolford’s Richard Prince-like paintings are ostensibly in on the joke. As for everyone else—does it matter?
Triple Candie is a Philadelphia-based entity, run by art historians Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, that curates and produces exhibitions about art but devoid of it. In 2005, in their Harlem gallery, they presented an exhibition titled Lester Hayes: Selected Work, 1962–1975. The artist was a deceased, bi-racial, post-minimalist sculptor. The art historians are white. The press release and wall texts noted that he was fictional. The gallery discarded the exhibition’s contents during deinstallation.