Allison Smith, an artist, curator, and producer of participatory projects, is associate professor and chair of the sculpture program at California College of the Arts.
Prop is a four-letter word and nothing to strut about. On the other hand, props are every thing.
A prop is an object used on a stage. The user is any actor, and the stage is anywhere. Everyday objects are the props of the everyday. There is art in animating things; however, things are not inanimate. The prop is subservient to the actor, but the actor is subject to the prop. It plays a part. Props are actors, furthering action, so you have to respect props properly.
Props are functional objects not decorative objects. If the object is touched, it’s called a prop; if not, it’s called set decoration, and that’s firm. There’s art, and there’s decorative art. There’s set decoration, and there’s home decor. A prop house is a run-down boarding house for props. Call the prop-house master or mistress for rates.
Props are tricky. They have an intended purpose but don’t often perform their presumed operation. Take a balsa wood chair, for instance, and break it against a body. It acts in a way you would think wood would, even if it wouldn’t, and behold, the body isn’t broken! A prop may act like one thing and behave like another. It’s a double, rubber-edged sword. Comedy and tragedy. Exaggerated and non-opera-ble. You have to keep it at a distance.
Props involve a sleight of hand, and the hand is always at least slightly involved. A prop is a copy and company property. Property designers design props. Where appropriate, the prop may be appropriated. It may already be a readymade. Otherwise it may be made and remade otherwise. By hand, for example.
The artist says to the art object, “I’m going to sit you down and prop you up . . . right, Pedestal?” A pedestal is an accessory to the act and is a form of prop and platform. Wax—shelves—stands. Glass—blocks—mirrors. Material props sculptures, like feet on a ped-a-stool. But without a propeller they are free to fly, fueled by inner strength. In amateur sculptures, the armature might flop. That is the brace inside of it.
Sculptures are props and products. Whether it is a target, a dart, or an objet d’art, it’s the action not the aim that matters.
If someone carries a palette, you know that person is an artist because that is the story. The palette is the artist’s attribute. The palette is also the stage before the painting. Stretcher bars and canvas are the support. The easel is an ass, as in sawhorse, workhorse, or hobbyhorse. It props up the painting like a crutch until it can stand on its own. An unstretched canvas on the floor is another arena in which to act. In this case, a can of paint can stand for the palette, but the art is always in the acting.
There are portrait paintings, landscapes, genre scenes, and still lifes. The prop is the star of the latter, standing in for the sitting out of actors. Suppose it is a supporting role, but still the star is the prop of the ladder. Whether for a brief stint or a brave stunt, props are people too. Mirrors are in Imitation of Life, a mellow drama. A piece of coral or pastry. A candlestick or skull. A breakaway bottle of sugar glass or a bit-part cameo. Props are the toy in the play. They’re what move the movie, leaving behind a sticky residue. Without their film there is no film. They’re artifacts and that’s art, in fact, and more than that.
Franz West, Passstücke (Adaptives), mid-1970s–.
Martin Kersels, Objects of the Dealer, 1995.
Robert Gober, Cat Litter, 1989.
Jasper Johns, Target, 1958.
René Magritte, La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (The Treachery of images [This is not a pipe]), 1929.
Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964.
Meret Oppenheim, Object, 1936.
Raphaelle Peale, Still Life with Cake, 1822.
Imitation of Life, 1959, directed by Douglas Sirk.
Sam Durant, Still Life (head, jug, electric parts), 2006.
Lara Schnitger, I Want Kids, 2005.
Roman Signer, Suitcase, 1985.
Mike Kelley, Day Is Done, 2005–6.
Paul McCarthy, Ketchup Bottles, 1991–2012.
Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975.
Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Outlaws, 1984.
Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock, 1951.
Guercino, Allegory of Painting and Sculpture, 1637.