Downtown Arts Initiative (DDAI) presents
Postcards from Home by Susan Harbage Page
Unintended Relations by Juan Logan
January 22 - March 14
Clinton Jr. College, Dalton Gallery
To be Southern is to be
irrevocably shaped by the rift of
society along the line of “race” that
defines American modernity, consigning
blacks and whites to different physical
and metaphorical spaces. Although
distinct in their materials and
approaches, artworks by Juan Logan and
Susan Harbage Page interrogate a shared
traumatic history to forge identity
through interconnection. Indeed, their
union as a married couple evokes those
obstructed by White Supremacists,
notably, but not exclusively, in the
South. The flatly abstract heads in
Logan’s series of paintings “Unintended
Relations” (2007) and Page’s photographs
of contemporary versions of Ku Klux Klan
hoods and robes in the series “Postcards
from Home” (2007) defy social divisions.
Being a Southerner has determined
Logan’s experience: “All my
relationships, my views on racism, my
interest in storytelling, my efforts to
preserve my past, and my observations of
the use and misuse of power are shaped
by my Southern heritage.”
1 Like many others in this region,
Page, who moved to North Carolina from
Ohio as a child, has grown into being a
Southerner, even as she retains some
identification with the North and a deep
familiarity with its own forms of
2 Page’s and Logan’s artworks
contribute to an ongoing dialogue
between these artists that continues to
shape their artistic development.
Although almost playfully ironic, an implicit violence shadows Page’s cryptic, if lush, photographs of Klan hoods sewn from contemporary fabrics. The disguise offered by such garments confers anonymity and a perverse sense of power upon the wearer. In contrast, the featureless black, beige, and white faces in Logan’s artworks suggest the forced anonymity of those reduced to caricature or symbol – be they black, white, or of mixed race. In Page’s works, the hood hides the identity of the one who seeks to control through violence and psychological intimidation. In Logan’s, as hurtful stereotype, the subject becomes a screen upon whose body the fears and desires of the other are projected. The display of these works together show how evocative shapes in the works of both Page and Logan oscillate between abstraction and representation in a critical play between art and life. These works suggest face-to-face confrontation, drawing in the viewer as a third party. In so doing, they initiate other, unintended, relations.
The paintings that comprise Logan’s “Unintended Relations” visually reflect upon George Lipsitz’s theorization of the “fatal links that connect race, place, and power” in American society, based upon by an exclusionist white “national spatial imaginary” that promotes the division and privatization of space, individual home ownership and commodity exchange over the values of collectivity and shared use. 3 For works that explore such themes, Logan has painted and printed flat featureless heads on squares of wallpaper patterned with pastoral scenes reminiscent of the Rococco. In 18th century garb, women feed poultry, shepherds tend flocks, men till soil, and couples dally amorously, all attended by multiple iterations of the expressionless frontal silhouette. This contrast between form and ground set up by Logan echoes how Lipsitz counters the ethic of the white spatial imaginary to that of the black spatial imaginary; the latter developing ties of solidarity across difference and community interests. 4 Land, for example, as social space, would be worth conserving for shared identity even when its sale might bring individual profit. In considering identity as forged through relations, Logan’s artworks also draw upon Africanist views of community as the embodiment of spiritual realities, with individuals bound by interpersonal connections that transcend their individual differences. 5
The face that Logan presents on his wallpaper grounds originated in Reconstruction-era caricatures of the “Mammy,” later commercially exploited as “Aunt Jemima.” Such images relegated black women to the domestic sphere, and, by desexualizing them, obscured a legacy of rape and incest perpetrated by slaveholders. 6 Logan has modified the head to resemble his own. By focusing on this locus of thought and behavior, his artworks suggest how the internalization of dehumanizing stereotypes causes a splitting of self from within: of subject from disparaged object. 7 One stands apart from oneself. Logan’s heads appear in different configurations, although all impassively and directly face the viewer. Unintended Relations # 7 shows a number of small heads whose arrangement suggests one that is much larger, floating above Romantic ruins, songbirds, and flowering shrubs. In this fallacious Acadia, a peasant drags a plow behind himself, his face obscured by another small iteration of the head. Such decorative schemes sentimentalize hard, forced labor, like that of slaves in films about the Antebellum South. Whether isolated or in groups, the heads in Logan’s works silently interrogate the viewer. One feels confronted, especially when a group merges into a larger entity. In Unintended Relations #11, two small dark heads, like children at the side of a parent, merge with a larger example. Together they contain many smaller heads, outlined or solidly white. Smaller black heads, dispersed across the page, suggest both spatial depth and the invasion of a faceless multitude. Suggestively, two such faces obscure those of a white couple reclining in the background, whose grace and pleasures would have depended upon the exploitation of others.
The word “Dixieland” that Logan repeatedly printed to form lyrical bands in Unintended Relations #1 and #3 engages such sentimental representations, like those of the South that inspired the lyrics of Daniel Emmett. His song “Dixieland” was first performed by minstrelers in blackface, evoking justifications of slavery and racist paternalism through depicting the victim as childishly happy in his or her acceptance of servitude. For Unintended Relations #1 Logan set a beige head off-center amidst smaller black versions on a fragment of wallpaper whose farm scene recalls that of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versaille. The queen played at being a shepherdess in her idyllic setting, while her subjects starved. As if in accusation, refusing to disappear from view, the flat and opaque head in Logan’s artwork is silent, even as he is accompanied by a band of cursive “Dixielands.” This song is not as innocuous as it seems, even today. The heads are not always opaque: at times they reveal and clarify what lies beneath. In Unintended Relations #3 Logan allows a view through a pair of heads, one nested like a thought or hidden self within the other. The translucency of this pair of heads both hide and expose an aristocratic couple who flirt within a scene over which floats another stream of elegantly cursive “Dixieland, Dixieland, Dixieland.” Such are the falsifications of history that decorate private homes and continue to influence contemporary social relations.
“Dixieland,” of course, inspired more than melodies. In 2007, Page began to sew her own versions of Klan hoods and robes from colorful prints, rich velvets and corduroys, decorative toiles, and conventional blue oxfords. Modeled by friends and family, these costumes form the basis for visually seductive photographs that picture a brutal history, with effects in the present. Page’s photographs unsettle any sense one may have of moral superiority, for one can imagine oneself in the place of one of her models. These works address the persistence of racism, which, protean in shape and guise, remains socially and personally wounding as in the time of the Klan. 8 Page stresses the collective nature of Klan activities in communities where everyone knew each other, even in disguise. By sewing the hoods and robes herself, Page roots public crimes in the domestic spaces of women whose “virtue” male White Supremacists claimed to protect. Their terrorism aimed to control the social mobility of blacks and the purported threats to racial “purity” posed by miscegenation.
Walmart, Toile, Pink Veil, and Blue Oxford dramatize such themes. The first three present hoods, vibrant against black grounds, allowing glimpses of eyes, hints of skin, and some of the clothing of the individuals beneath. The sensuality of these works jars with their distasteful subject matter, and perversely encourages a desire to see the person so disguised. In Pink Veil flowers and leaves screen an innocent yet seductive girl whose gaze filters through a covering that conflates Klan hood with communion or bridal veil. In another work, Toile, feminine eyes look back at the viewer through slits in a hood sewn from red-figured toile, and which make it uncertain if she confesses or accuses. The intricately decorated “chinoiserie” of the fabric recalls colonialist cultural appropriations of the period when the slave trade began to provide an economic basis for the development of modern society. While such patterns first appeared in the 18th century on fine china and fabrics, Page now uses them to refer to contemporary neo-colonialism that sustains the global economy of late capitalism. Toile reminds one of the outsourcing of textile production to Asia, a subject significant to the textile belt of the American South, with an economy historically dependent on mills, and still suffering from the loss of such employment.
In a related work, Page used plastic shopping bags to create a Walmart hood: the word “Always” links this corporation to neo-colonialist promulgations of racism for profit. By giving the hood a fringed collar, however, Page summons the Afro-Cuban Abakuá spirit. Klansmen originally appropriated the shape of their garments from this spirit’s dance costumes, exploiting its power to oppress the descendents of those who had once worshiped it. 9 By restoring the fringe, Page seeks to restore its healing power. Bringing the Klan’s racism closer to home, Blue Oxford shows a teenage boy sprawled in a chair, his robe parting to reveal shorts, white socks, and black shoes. The boy’s informal pose and casual clothing give a sense of his social position; spread legs assert a right to space. How much and how little such a work reveals of the individual beneath the hood accentuates the way anyone might don one of Page’s hoods and gowns, raising questions of how it might feel to be so clothed. Would one feel sickening distaste or pleasure in the power provided by such disguise?
In such ways as these, Page’s photographs like Logan’s paintings visually consider the traumatic costs of racism, making visible that which has been hidden in plain sight. 10 Both artists seek healing through revelation, promoting understanding of the ruptures wrought by racism. Page’s and Logan’s respective artworks acknowledge and keep in our memory the illicit and secret thoughts and attitudes that shape social behavior. 11 Logan and Page do not simply accuse, however, they also implicate themselves – each implicitly appearing as a presence in their own works. The artworks on exhibit at the Dalton Gallery at Clinton Junior College are acts of intervention in the social fabric, conducted with grace, humor, and decisiveness.
1 See Juan Logan and Ken Bloom, “A Conversation with Juan Logan,” Juan Logan: Whose Song Shall I Sing?, ed. Ken Bloom (Boulder, Colo.: Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003): 15.