Prop Master exhibition text, 2009, by Laurel Frederickson
Susan Harbage Page’s Background Material: Columns refer to the often unacknowledged but critical social function of privileged women. Framing the entrance to the exhibition, the pair of semi-circular, yet massive, fabric columns signifies how women prop up the social structure. Each column displays the digitally altered archival photograph of a well- dressed, smiling woman serving cookies to a man. Doubled in mirrored reverse, she faces two directions, as if to serve all sides at once. Stretched out of proportion, she becomes an abstraction. Her elongated form fits the pillars, which she graces as the upholder of social codes and rituals, and as decorative object and interior designer, suggesting her complicity in maintaining a rigidly divided society. One cannot identify the figure when close-up, due to the image’s pixelation, but only from a distance. This suggests how difficult it can be to understand one’s culture when immersed within it.
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 the racist imaginary 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 mere background, as much in the museum as on the plantation, even though their labor sustained the inegalitarian society they were compelled to serve.
Page’s Background Material: Chair Rail Frieze also appropriates and transforms an archival photograph from the Gibbes collection 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 of a well-dressed woman’s hands, delicately serving cookies, which a man’s hands contentedly take. Tracing the room, the replication of the image engages with how such actions have recurred innumerable times in the past and how they continue into the present.