Designed for the Main Gallery of the Gibbes Museum, Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan’s installation Prop Master aims to comment on the Holy City’s social relations, especially regarding race, gender, and class.
The name comes from the person called the Prop Master, who is responsible for all props on a theater’s set and how they are used. A museum is similar to a stage. Using materials from the Gibbes’ permanent collection in connection with their own works, Logan and Page show how art, like props from a set, can either reinforce, challenge, or undermine societal standards.
Covering all four walls of the Main Gallery from chair rail to ceiling is Logan’s dotted pattern made of tiny stenciled heads. Painted in a color only a shade lighter than the gallery’s walls, they glisten in the light and shimmer with meaning behind the other installations. The numerous tiny heads form a dynamic montage that draws from and draws attention to black stereotypes. The featureless faces suggest nameless slaves whose lives were never known.
In Page’s chair rail freize, the hands of a well-dressed and higher class woman passes out cookies to a man’s waiting hands. The image, mirrored over and over again, wraps around the room like a reflection of a woman’s unyielding social responsibilities.
These social obligations, the artists suggest, recur even now. Connected thematically to the freize are two massive columns that rise up on either side of the entryway. The mirrored image of the cookie serving covers the entirety of each column. Close-up, she’s pixilated. From a distance, she can be seen perfectly. The effect is the suggestion that you can’t understand your culture while immersed in to. If we can’t understand our own culture, it inevitably presumes that we can never be at peace with anyone else’s.
“Sexually Ambiguous” is an installation with a few large portraits of men and women who make us doubt which person is which gender. They combine with several digitally altered miniatures spread out over the wall space. The alterations vary from humorous to sexually explicit to racially ambiguous — all of them attempting to layer social standards of the past with those of the present.
Inside, head shots from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation and Walt Disney’s 1946 semi-animated film Song of the South are digitally altered along with old cartoons and Ku Klux Klan footage. Together, they create a disturbing array of scenes. Seen separately, most of the images seem innocent, but linked together, they illuminate slavery’s lingering legacy, its banal evil. It’s a subject many Southerners would no doubt prefer swept under the rug.
A series called Famous Last Names juxtaposes portraits from the Gibbes collection with Page’s contemporary portrait photographs, all set in antique frames. The paintings depict unnamed figures from Charleston’s aristocratic past. The photographs, printed on canvas, are of present-day people who share surnames with those figures. We know two things: Slaves took the last names of their slave masters; and many whites fathered mixed-race children. Famous Last Names, therefore, powerfully affirms a Southern reality in which owner and owned, white and black, have been linked by blood for generations.
“Expressions of Affection” involves beautiful pieces of furniture from the museum’s collection. At the foot of each are wrapped bundles tied with decorative strips of fabric. The bundles are actual Klan uniforms. The colorful and otherwise feminine strips of fabric succeed in implicating the woman’s role in Southern white violence. Another resonant connection comes from the fact that Charles Pinckney, who owned hundreds of slaves, once owned this furniture, giving greater resonance to the sight of each bundle waiting to be unwrapped and set free.
In the center of the main gallery is a sea of 10,000 white boxes spread out beneath six columns. The columns are supposed to represent Charleston’s architecture, but that isn’t clear or convincing. What is visually arresting, however, are the 40 black boxes intermixed with the white. It amounts to a visceral punch to see the number of artworks in the Gibbes collection made by white artists completely overwhelming those made by black artists. It’s a brave turn by the Gibbes’ curatorial staff to allow Page and Logan to indict in effect the Gibbes for its collaborative role in Charleston’s original sin. Indeed, the Gibbes provided Logan and Harbage with the ideal props to stage their unique and challenging view of local history.
It’s a bit unbalanced. While it aims to discuss class, the role of women, and the permeable boundaries of gender, it mostly addresses race and issues of racism.
Even so, Prop Master is a powerful and a brave statement, one that at times I couldn’t believe I was experiencing, so honest was its expression. Historically, the Gibbes has avoided controversy. Here, we might be seeing the beginning stages of a new kind of history to come.