Prop Master, a collaborative one-room exhibition by Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan, recontextualizes portraits from the permanent collection at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC and other local artifacts by displaying them alongside their own works, although within the institution. Living around the many decorative and luxurious antebellum homes of Charleston is a challenging experience. We see the majesty of architecture, but also the skewed wealth of slavery. Buildings are preserved as traditions are too; Old South remains a commodity in a tourist economy.
Upon entering the main gallery, first noticed is a gleaming tile-like floor with colonnade border in front of Juan Logan’s face-shaped video collage Welcome Home. Glimpses of a KKK rally in Washington and shots from popular films like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Disney’s Song of the South are seen across white and black paper boxes that compose the raised floor of an empty room-like sculpture. White and black are clearly contrasted; white outnumbers black, white are the columns, and black forms the base. Not obvious was that the piece was intended to represent the 10,000 works at the Gibbes Museum, most of which were produced by “whites.”
This stark black/white reading is contrasted with Harbage’s Famous Last Names, a series of new photographic portraits set beside old paintings. With the concept of some familiar relation as motivation, I look for evidence of “black” and “white.” I’m struck by my own use of ethnic stereotypes, feeling some guilt about doing this. The portrait of a security officer next to the column of a facade reminds us that he does not own this place. A young man’s gold necklace is adorned with a Masonic “G,” reclaiming the symbol of a group that did not traditionally admit slaves as members. Unfortunately, there are no last names presented to us; valuable historic information is left out of the work.
The artists’ combined interests in “race, class, gender, power, and place” culminate in Sexually Ambiguous, a series of manipulated portraits and works from the Gibbes. We start to pick out “man” and “woman” features across racial lines, looking for stereotypes in much the same way as Famous Last Names. Gender is obvious in some, but imagined in others, given the context. The artists make some identities totally obscured, for example, by placing a plain white box or floral KKK-like hood over the face.
Bundled white cloth packages tied up with ribbon sit underneath or near decorative dark-varnished chairs in front of Famous Last Names. The significance of these objects and their relationship to the furniture is unclear. Upon reading the wall text, we learn that the bundles are antique Klansmen garb and the furniture once belonged to Charles Pinckney, both on pedestals “propped up by whiteness.” Although the artists succeed in giving us some “particular portrait of society,” the work depends on the explanations provided by the wall texts. Logan’s efforts to show the “frightening power of racial caricatures to shape our current perceptions and actions” are felt through all the works, as ominous renditions of ‘Dixie’ and other songs penetrate the atmosphere.
Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page are studio art professors at UNC Chapel Hill. Their collaboration will be on view until July 19th.