Prop Master at Charleston's Gibbes Museum of Art
|Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan, Prop Master exhibit, Charleston, South Carolina, 2009. Photo: Rick Rhodes.|
The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina presented the exhibition Prop Master: An Installation in the museum's Main Gallery from April 3 through July 19, 2009. This site-specific, large-scale installation created exclusively for the Gibbes drew materials from the museum's permanent collection of portraits, landscape paintings, and archives, begun over 150 years ago. This online presentation of Prop Master, with original wall text by Laurel Fredrickson, reveals how artists Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan juxtaposed art objects drawn from the Gibbes's collection and decorative art objects from local public and private collections with works of their own creation. In doing so, they investigate the role of the institution of the museum as both a prop master and a prop with regard to race, class, and gender relations in historic Charleston society.
Artists Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan designed Prop Master: An Installation specifically for the Main Gallery of the Gibbes Museum of Art. In its totality, Prop Master constitutes what Logan and Page call "a disruption from within." As the person who acquires and manufactures props for theatrical and film productions, the prop master is responsible for all aspects of their use on a set. Prop Master compares the prop master and the museum, as well as a production and an exhibition, to explore how the elements of an art collection are social props and the art museum a prop master. This installation investigates the role of the Gibbes Museum as prop master and prop with regard to Charleston's social relations.
Established as the Carolina Art Association in 1858, the Gibbes Museum took its name from merchant James Shoolbred Gibbes who funded construction of a Beaux Arts-style building which opened to the public in April 1905. The Gibbes houses a collection of ten thousand works, principally American portraits, landscapes, still-lives, and miniature portraits with a Charleston or southern connection. As a society's self-portrait, displaying its aspirations and decorative schemes, such a collection is defined as much by what it excludes or treats as background as by what it includes. An art museum like the Gibbes is analogous to a prop master in how it collects and exhibits art. In so doing, it may support or challenge prevailing racial, gender, and class relations — Prop Master is an example of a challenge.
Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan, Page and Logan (far left) talk with museum visitors on Prop Master's opening night, Charleston, South Carolina, April 2009. Photo: Paul Cheney.
|Prop Master at the Gibbes Museum of Art. A short film by Nick Smith, 2009.|
Wood, pasteboard, plastic
Strategically centered in the gallery, Prop Allocations or Accents for Gracious Living signifies the museum as institution and microcosm of Charleston society, and explores its status as a social self-portrait. The shape of Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page's installation mirrors that of the gallery in order to comment on how culture — rituals, codes, manners, and customs — is supported and sustained by the museum as a prop master, with works of art as the props to stage a particular portrait of society.
|Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan, Veiled box in Prop Allocations or Accents for Gracious Living, Charleston, South Carolina, 2009. Photo: Susan Harbage Page.|
The platform holds ten thousand boxes. These boxes represent the ten thousand works that comprise the collection of the Gibbes Museum of Art, largely society portraits, landscapes, and miniatures. Interspersed among the white boxes are forty black ones. These signify the only works in the collection created by African Americans, works which were acquired recently or entered the collection accidentally. The boxes are laid out as a rough timeline based on the museum's years of operation, and when particular pieces by African-Americans were added. The end of the platform close to the pink columns is the beginning of the timeline and the other end concludes with the four pieces by African Americans which were added to the collection in 2008. The veiled box refers to the first work (in 1943) by an African American artist to become part of the Gibbes' collection: Claude Clark's Old Swede's Church, 1940. Only long after its accession did it become known that its printmaker was African American. The stacked rows of small black boxes that support the platform suggest the unacknowledged role of African Americans in upholding this culture and sustaining its economic structure.
Photographs, tarpaper, historical frames
|Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan, Portrait from Famous Last Names, Charleston, South Carolina, 2009. Photo: Rick Rhodes.|
This wall installation, conceptualized by Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page, juxtaposes paintings from the collection of the Gibbes Museum with photographic portraits by Page and a portrait painting by Logan, all in antique frames from the collection. Once grand, these aging portrait frames suggest the decaying porticoes of Charleston, now in the process of renovation.
Elegantly photographed in elite settings, Page's large portraits, printed on canvas to reflect painted portraits in the installation, depict contemporary Charlestonians with the names of planter families. Recalling the complex interfamily ties that link whites and blacks in South Carolina, these images suggest how slaves were identified by the patronyms of their "owners," some of whom fathered and enslaved mixed-race children. The serious poses chosen by the subjects (without prompting by the artist) resemble those in historic portraits, suggesting the power of art and visual culture in shaping self-presentation.
|Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan, Portrait of Denmark Vesey in Famous Last Names, Charleston, South Carolina, 2009. Photo: Rick Rhodes.|
Paintings, frames, photographs
For Sexually Ambiguous, Page and Logan selected large portraits and miniatures from the collection of the Gibbes Museum of Art to illuminate race and gender relations. They chose the portraits based upon the appearance of the individuals rather than for the identity of those pictured. These portraits suggest a social caste as a whole. The miniatures include paintings of men, women, and landscapes that were digitally altered to reimagine their content/s and draw attention to their function as a mode of self-presentation.
Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan, Sexually Ambiguous , Charleston, South Carolina, 2009.
Photo: Rick Rhodes.
|Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan, Portrait from Sexually Ambiguous, Charleston, South Carolina, 2009. Photo: Rick Rhodes.|
Alterations vary. In some cases they are used to question social codes that prevent display of non-normative sexuality. Responding to the rouge on a man's face or his carefully curled hair, for instance, Page may have added jewelry or further cosmetic touches to a portrait. Other miniatures gently poke fun at the repertory of poses typically used in portraits. One shows a brown and white rabbit peeking from a woman's bodice, while in another a man in Napoleonic-era clothing bears a rabbit on one shoulder as another rabbit leans over the frame as if to escape its limits.
|Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan, Portrait from Sexually Ambiguous, Charleston, South Carolina, 2009. Photo: Susan Harbage Page.|
In other miniatures, images of slaves are overlaid on pastoral views of plantations or on cityscapes: reminders of the unacknowledged presence of the almost 2,500,000 slaves who lived and labored in the US South. These works reinscribe the presence of these slaves, so often omitted from representation. More controversially, topsy-turvy figures join the inverted torsos of planters and slaves, to suggest the necessity of the slave to the planter. Elsewhere, men and women have been painted in blackface, to reference minstrel shows that so disparaged African American culture. Women are also implicated. Elegantly dressed and coiffed, they may hold a leather whip or an iron slave collar. Or, in the case of one of Logan's alternations, they expose a toothy, savage grin, derived from caricatures of African Americans. Page and Logan placed Caucasian and African American hair together in some of the miniatures, referencing how these objects were treasured as keepsakes of a beloved other. The adding of hair from African Americans suggests the absence of blacks from the category of the treasured or even of the acknowledged.
By arranging the overall grouping of paintings and miniatures to go beyond the limits of the picture rail, the artists transgress to criticize museum conventions. These conventions include those dictating who may or may not be pictured within such a cultural institution, so long dominated by a privileged few.
Wood, fabric, paint, and paper
Juan Logan's Background Material: Wallpaper, a stenciled grid of tiny heads, fills the area of the gallery wall between chair rail and picture rail typically reserved for conventional works of art. Painted in Lancaster Whitewash, a color close to that of the wall, the pattern is not immediately recognized as composed of hundreds of impassive heads. Wallpaper visualizes how African Americans were not acknowledged as subjects but treated as if invisible, even when waiting on someone at the dinner table. These heads, endlessly repeated, suggest how racist imagery reduces people to anonymous caricatures. Logan distilled the shape of these heads from pernicious stereotypes (the form also appears in Portrait of Denmark Vesey and his video Welcome Home). African Americans were considered background, as much in the museum as on the plantation, even though their labor sustained the inegalitarian society they were compelled to serve.
Susan Harbage Page, Background Material: Columns, Charleston, South Carolina, 2009.
Photo: Rick Rhodes.
Page's Background Material: Chair Rail Frieze also appropriates and transforms an archival photograph to consider how women sustain social customs, mores, and values. Following the chair rail around the gallery, separating exhibition wall space from that below, Page's frieze shows mirrored iterations of a cropped and abstracted photograph. The photograph, selected from the Gibbes Museum archives of images from past openings, depicts a well-dressed woman's hands, delicately serving cookies, which a man's hands content/edly take. Tracing the room, the replication of the image indicates how such actions have recurred innumerable times and how they continue into the present.
Susan Harbage Page, Background Material: Chair Rail Frieze, Charleston, South Carolina, 2009. Photo: Rick Rhodes.
return to topWelcome Home, 2009
|Welcome Home, a video by Juan Logan. Prop Master at the Gibbes Museum of Art, 2009.|
In his large-scale video projection Welcome Home, Juan Logan samples and alters imagery and sound from D. W. Griffin's silent film Birth of a Nation (1915), Walt Disney's live action/animation feature Song of the South (1946), Disney cartoons, footage of a 1920 Ku Klux Klan rally at the Washington Monument, and engravings of the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter, the latter selected from the archives of the Gibbes Museum. The two feature films are infamous for their systematic use of racial stereotypes, as well as their artistic innovation. Griffith's film sympathetically depicted the Ku Klux Klan, implicitly giving cultural support to lynching by vilifying black males as sexually predatory and dangerous towards white women, which enflamed white supremacist passions. The Disney studio based Song of the South on Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories in which an Uncle Tom-like character recounts the adventures of Br'er Rabbit and other animal characters. While actors play Uncle Remus and the white plantation family, the animals are animated. The cartoon fish that repeatedly leaps into the air refers to 'fish tales' that romanticize the South just as the song "Everybody has a Laughing Place" contests idealized accounts of "Dixie." Denigrating stereotypes deployed in Song of the South prevented its release, in its entirety, in the United States, although the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Song.
Juan Logan, Welcome Home video in its exhibit context, Charleston, South Carolina, 2009. Photo: Rick Rhodes.
The blank silhouette that appears on the Wallpaper of Background Material and as the Portrait of Denmark Vesey also frames the scenes and sound track sampled in Welcome Home. The ironic title of Logan's video refers to the words of an older white woman welcoming a white family back to the plantation and its values. Images of a young white woman appear amid an army of hooded Klansmen, who celebrate their "protection" of her womanhood. These images alternate with scenes that include a smiling Uncle Remus, supposedly happy in the paternalistic embrace of slavery and Jim Crow, a black "coon" cat running scared from an unseen adversary, Civil War battles, and the face of a young black male (of the present as much as of the past) in the process of being erased. Logan digitally altered the imagery in his video to visually magnify its drama and draw attention to the frightening power of racial caricatures.
Expressions of Affection, 2009
Susan Harbage Page
Ku Klux Klan uniforms, assorted fabrics
Period table and four chairs
Eight variously shaped bundles, formed from Ku Klux Klan uniforms from 1920s South Carolina, make up Susan Harbage Page's Expressions of Affection. Attractive fabric strips and ribbons hold each bundle in shape, with the exception of one tied with an actual rope belt worn with Klan robes. The belt's resemblance to that worn by monks suggests how Klan members viewed themselves as a brotherhood with a mission or vocation. Ties made from pink silk fabric, seersucker, or pink and white ribbons implicate women in Klan activities: sewing hoods and gowns, as well as cleaning, pressing, storing, and treasuring them.
return to topRecommended Resources:
Carbonnell, Bettina, ed. Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts. Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.
McInnis, Maurie D. The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Natale, Michele. "Behind Charleston's facade: Chapel Hill artists' work reveals the racial divide in the city." Raleigh-Durham News & Observer, 17 May 2009, http://www.newsobserver.com/2009/05/17/75953/behind-charlestons-facade.html.
Parker, Adam. "Prop Master: Unexpected installation challenges views of race, class, gender, sexual identity." Charleston Post and Courier, 10 May 2009,
Powers, Bernard. Black Charlestonians: A Social History 1822-1885. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.
Robertson, David. Denmark Vesey: The Buried Story of America's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It. New York: Vintage, 2000.
Smith, Nick. Prop Master at the Gibbes Museum of Art. 2009.
African American Atelier, Featured Artist Juan Logan http://www.africanamericanatelier.org/artist_logan.html
Art Knowledge News, Gibbes Museum of Art to Show Prop Master
William Christenberry's Klan Tableau, Southern Spaces, 19 March 2007. http://www.southernspaces.org/2007/klan-tableau
Dailyserving.com, "Prop Master."
Gibbes Museum of Art: Prop Master
Grace Elizabeth Hale, "A Horrible, Beautiful Beast" (Review of the traveling exhibit, "Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love"), Southern Spaces, 6 March 2008 http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/horrible-beautiful-beast
Juan Logan Blog
MICA, At Freedom's Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland http://digital.mica.edu/exhibition/pages/artists2.html#
North Carolina Public Radio, "Meet Susan Harbage Page"
PBS, Art:21, Artists: Fred Wilson
South Carolina Information Highway: Charleston History
Susan Harbage Page Blog
Winthrop University Visual and Performing Arts,
DDAI presents Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan