This article was originally published on Sunday, May 10, 2009.
Charleston society is famous for its sense of propriety.
Everyone knows that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things. It’s customary after cocktail and dinner parties for the guests to deliver thank-you notes, often by hand.
Community service is fundamental, often expressed through membership on nonprofit boards.
White pants and seersucker jackets are not worn before May or after September.
One’s private life is respected. Charlestonians know a lot about their colleagues and friends, but they are discreet.
So it comes as something of a surprise to discover that the “proper” people who run one of Charleston’s esteemed institutions, the Gibbes Museum of Art, have decided to fill a large second-floor gallery with, well, the unspeakable.
Perhaps the installation “Prop Master,” which forces the viewer to confront issues of race, class, gender and sexual identity, shouldn’t come as a shock. After all, the Gibbes in 2008 offered special exhibitions devoted to the subjects of slavery and African-American folk art; a 2007 show of Lorna Simpson’s work, which explores gender, identity, culture, history and memory, often using the black woman as a point of reference; and a 2005 exhibit called “Unspoken Spaces: Inside and Outside the Boundaries of Class, Race and Space.”
Yet “Prop Master” is unusual, for the show, which scrutinizes society using a strategy of juxtaposition, is holding a mirror not only to Charleston, but to its historic repository of art, the Gibbes itself. In the process, the installation raises questions about the role of the museum and the nature of the community it serves.
All part of the plan
Gibbes Executive Director Angela Mack likes to raise such questions. When she encountered husband-and-wife artists Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page two years ago at an event sponsored by the museum, she saw her opportunity.
Here were two artists with Southern roots (Logan, born in Nashville, is black, and Page, born in Ohio and raised in Charlotte, is white.) accustomed to exposing historical and social hypocrisy and challenging viewers’ expectations.
When Logan was in Charleston last year for the “Landscape of Slavery” show (he had a piece in it), Mack broached the idea of a self-referential installation that used the museum’s collection.
Though the Gibbes doesn’t typically mount installations, Mack predicted that, in the hands of these two artists, something extraordinary could happen, something provocative, something that would require a degree of courage on the part of both artist and art patron.
“It’s like a good lawyer who knows what the answer to the question will be,” Mack said.
Logan and Page were given free rein, encouraged to explore the collection’s 10,000 works, cull from it and introduce original creations and combinations. The goal was to examine the ways in which the Gibbes has represented, and failed to represent, its community during the course of a century, and to consider how that community has served, and failed to serve, the interests of its people.
By confronting these issues, the logic went, perhaps the museum and its patrons would learn something new about themselves.
“They (the artists) were surprised that we wanted to take this leap,” Mack said. “I think they were surprised at the leeway they were given.”
But Mack bristles at the idea that provocation is unusual to the “Prop Master” installation. All museums share a fundamental obligation to provide context and challenge perceptions, she said.
“The great thing about art is that you can do that and not beat people over the head because it’s open to interpretation — it’s always open to interpretation,” she said.
Holding up the mirror
Nevertheless, “Prop Master” is what readers of gossip columns call “a talker.” The installation’s title refers to the museum, which is at once stage manager and stage, providing and using “props” that signify aspects of culture. It consists of five main elements:
On one long wall is a display called “Famous Last Names,” meant to draw the link between white planters and their slaves’ descendants (who share the same last name).
Portraits of landed gentry from the Gibbes collection share the space with large-format color photographs of local black individuals and families, posing within an antique decor and cast in a golden light that harks back to the 18th and 19th centuries. These contemporary portraits of Charleston residents are presented within antique frames from the museum collection, and the overall effect is one of disjointed superimposition: modern black figures among antique furniture, framed with baroque ornamentation and looking at the viewer with confidence and pride, while nearby are ghosts from the past, detached from the modern experience and all that has transpired in the intervening years.
Alluding to what has transpired are bundles of white cloth, neatly tied with bands and rope and positioned strategically beneath the portraits and among some tattered pieces of old furniture. These bundles, it turns out, are Ku Klux Klan robes. Positioned above the portraits is an abstract, faceless image of the Madonna, framed by a crown of thorns.
On the opposite wall is perhaps the most provocative feature of the installation: a display called “Sexually Ambiguous.” With two exceptions, the wall consists of portraits, arranged in the shape of a bell curve. At both ends are a plethora of digitally enhanced miniatures: a man with breasts, a white woman holding a black baby, a woman with a whip clenched in her teeth, a white man with a black face superimposed, men and women with bruised eyes, figures afloat in the air, a woman with a mustache.
These miniatures, originally meant to function much as online photo galleries and Facebook do today, have been distorted by the artists to reveal a hidden truth: Nothing is as pristine as it might appear. As if to emphasize the point, Page and Logan have breached the normal zone of display by placing some of these miniatures above the strip of molding that runs along the gallery’s walls about 9 feet from the floor, suggesting how the boundaries of society are challenged both by the private lives of its members and the art that strives to reveal their secrets.
Most striking about “Sexually Ambiguous” is the central assemblage of regular-scale portraits. Anchored in their midst are two pictures that, in a peculiar way, mirror one another. One features a beautiful, young black woman with short-cropped hair, light-skinned, naked, reclining on a lush white sheet. It is a study in eroticism (by Ronald Sherr, who painted it while a student in 1974), yet the woman is staring vacantly into space, lost in thought, her mind utterly separated from her body.
To her right is a painting of a dying Civil War soldier, reclining in the other direction, attended to by a black man and a white man in uniform. Here is life and death, propriety and the betrayal of propriety. Surrounding these figures are prim and proper Charlestonians of that bygone era, placidly looking out at the viewer as though the drama taking place at the center of the wall was unnoticed or, in any case, purposefully ignored.
What do we make of this exquisite nude in this new context? The artists leave it to you to decide.
In the middle of the room is a large platform surrounded by six Greek columns, the pillars of society, that suggest decay. There is no roof. On the platform are rows and rows of small cardboard boxes, 10,000 to be exact, each representing a work in the Gibbes’ collection. Forty of the boxes, scattered throughout one end of the display, are black, and all the rest are white. In its 104 years, the Gibbes has acquired only 40 works by black artists. Beneath the platform, holding it up at each of the four corners, are more black boxes.
Two large columns are wrapped with printed material depicting well-heeled women serving cookies to men at a reception. Similarly, a frieze that stretches along each wall of the gallery features a mirrored image of female arms extending a tray of cookies from which a man partakes. Women, it should be said, have played an instrumental role is boosting support for the museum.
The Gibbes Art Gallery Auxiliary was formed in 1950, changed its name in 1968 to the Women’s Council and today has 200 members, according to Lisa Burbage, its president. (Women’s Council volunteers folded most of those black and white boxes.)
Finally, the installation features a video called “Welcome Home” by Logan, who juxtaposed images from D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (Hollywood’s first blockbuster, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light) with a variety of other popular sources, including Disney cartoons, newsreels of a Klan rally in Washington, D.C., and images of Fort Sumter.
The “screen” on which the video is projected is shaped like a human head, suggesting that the history the film reveals is born of racial stereotypes and cultural ideas we share, for better or for worse, as a nation of individuals.
Page and Logan, despite being married, worked together for the first time in designing “Prop Master.” In a phone interview, they explained what motivated them.
They wanted the viewer to take a fresh look at familiar objects, Logan said.
That’s why they strived to recontextualize the works selected from the Gibbes collection.
Page is a photographer (mostly) who has veered toward conceptual art; Logan has worked in various media, including sculpture (metal and stone), painting and printmaking. Both are professors of art at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
They said the nature of the Gibbes collection inspired them to delve into the little-discussed components of Charleston history. The museum’s many landscapes represent the idea of property, they said. The portraits represent society. The miniatures, which were traded like today’s wallet photos, represent community.
Page long has been interested in subjects such as immigration, race relations and women’s rights, she said. Her husband consistently has explored ideas of race and gender, too, “looking at how things have, or have not, changed.”
Page said she moved to Charlotte when she was 10, but remembers well how Greenville, Ohio, was a “sunset town”: Blacks were not allowed to spend the night there.
“So I was aware of race at an early age,” she said.
A black boy asked her to the prom, and she really wanted to go with him, but her parents told her it was scandalous, that her father could lose his job. So she decided to abide by the rules of society.
Logan and Page’s interracial marriage has made them “keenly aware of the things going on around us that others (tend to) brush off,” Logan said. “We are far more sensitive to the subtleties of race.”
Page said whites often strive to be politically correct when it comes to race relations. So she likes to provoke “to get a conversation to take place.”
Logan said social boundaries differ for whites and blacks.
“Race is always talked about in the African-American community, but not in the white community,” he said.
“We never talked about it,” Page said of her childhood.
The artists said the opportunity to mount “Prop Master” was “refreshing” because it allowed the museum to do what museums are supposed to do: present a complex history in a fresh way, “and move people forward in nice, quiet ways,” Logan said.