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27 Mar

Dildos, tampons and faux nails: inside Portia Munson’s Pink

The artist’s immersive artwork explores mass consumerism and the forces of ‘empowerment and entrapment’ impregnated in constructs of femininity

In 1994, Marcia Tucker, founder and director of the Latest Museum, opened a two-part show titled Bad Girls. It featured over 50 artists working across painting, sculpture, performance, film, and writing. Alongside Laura Aguilar, Guerrilla Girls, and Carrie Mae Weems was artist Portia Munson, a Cooper Union graduate who debuted hundreds of collected pink objects meticulously arranged on an enormous pink table: tampon applicators, dildos, fake nails, pacifiers, hair brushes, mirrors. It was titled “Pink Project (Table)” (1994 – ongoing).

Visually, the work resulted from Munson’s almost-obsessive collecting of pink objects since she was young. But it surely was also a comment on the marketing, reinforcing, and infantilising of femininity. As Munson says, all of the things ‘girls are told they ‘need’.’ Writing in 1994 for the Latest York Times, critic Roberta Smith described Munson’s “Pink Project (Table)” as “considered one of the show’s few truly mesmerising moments”. Nonetheless, more widely, Bad Girls provoked the ire of critics comparable to Jan Avgikos for Art Forum, but – because it often goes – almost three many years on, the exhibition is a touchstone for third-wave feminist art.

Expanding on the meaning of a ‘bad girl’ within the show’s catalogue, Tucker wrote in regards to the women artists defying the tropes of femininity “to define themselves based on their very own terms, their very own pleasures, their very own interests, in their very own way. But they’re doing it by utilizing a delicious and outrageous sense of humour to be certain that not only that everybody gets it but to essentially give it to them as well. That’s what we mean by ‘bad girls.’”

The morning after her opening at Latest York City’s Museum of Sex, Portia Munson: The Pink Bedroom where works made in her three-decade profession is being exhibited – “The Pink Bedroom” (1994 – ongoing), Functional Women, Her Body, and a latest sculpture titled “Nude II” (2022) – Munson is chatting with Dazed over the phone from her home within the Catskills in southeastern Latest York. “I definitely have a really rebellious streak,” she says. “So I felt like being in a show at the moment titled Bad Girls was sensible for me because I used to be making work that was very much against the minimalist, political – Hans Haacke or Vito Acconci – aesthetic.”

The energy of the Eighties, where the pop art of artists like Keith Haring reigned supreme, was snuffed out attributable to the Aids epidemic or drug overdoses (Jean Michel-Basquiat), and the extravagance that defined the last decade largely fell alongside the stock market crash. Chatting with the Latest York Times in 1992, gallerist du jour Mary Boone said: “Value in all the pieces is being questioned. The psychology of the 80s was excess; within the 90s, it’s all about conservation.”

But amongst the minimalism and masculinity of the last decade, Munson, along with her pink plastic, was an outlier. “As a young woman on the time, I definitely felt taken less seriously,” she recalls. “I had a boyfriend going to graduate school at Yale, and I used to be friends with all of those male artists who were peers on the time, who went on to grow to be really well-known artists, and I did feel like I used to be a girlfriend; you recognize?” She laughs. But one way or the other, that exact show, the Bad Girl show, shifted that for me and made me feel like I knew what I used to be doing.”

“I definitely remember once I first exhibited a big expanse of pink and that just felt like: ah, yes” – Portia Munson

Munson was born in Massachusetts in 1961. From a young age, because the oldest of three, including two brothers, she realised that being a lady meant she’d experience life in a different way – while also being perceived in a different way – in comparison with men. “I used to be the oldest by three years, but still, there have been things that they were allowed to do or that were different,” she recalls. “I remember being furious about that, even at a very young age. That just translated into my work and the way I used to be seeing the world.”

It wasn’t just art that she saw the world through but how she spoke to it. Having severe dyslexia, Munson explains, “art was a way of expressing my intelligence or ideas, a approach to express myself. It has at all times felt like my language.” Studying at Cooper Union within the late Nineteen Seventies and early 80s brought her face-to-face with artist greats comparable to Barbara Kruger and Martha Rosler, and the praise from the Bad Girls show set her own trajectory off with an upwards motion. “I definitely remember once I first exhibited a big expanse of pink (“Pink Project: Table”) and that just felt like: ah, yes.”

“But it surely happens over and once again,” she continues. “Like showing my work on the opening (of MoSex) and having it resonate with people of all ages. Many were just sufficiently old to get in and were really into it. A whole lot of people got here as much as me and thanked me for making it. It felt very gratifying.”

As an adult, Munson collected pink objects to make use of as stand-ins for people and as metaphors for female bodies and the feminist ideologies she explored in her paintings. When she had children, she became hyper-aware of how people gender-identify babies through colors and objects. 

Within the 90s, she was living in Provincetown and frequenting the swap shops at the town’s dumps to embellish the rooms of her house. “I wasn’t really considering ‘I’m making a bit now’,” she recalls. “I used to be just making something that made me feel good.” Soon, she began exhibiting the objects in small local galleries. “That was once I realised it was actually a piece, and I could share it with people. Once I moved back to Latest York City, I had a generously sized studio where I used to be living, however it was also my installation.”

Eventually, this private realm turned public, and the objects collected in her work-slash-home evolved into Munson’s largest work, an iteration of which is the centrepiece of her show at MoSex: “The Pink Bedroom”, described as an immersive “dream space, or a womb-like space” that “skirts the road between empowerment and entrapment”. It’s full of hundreds of repurposed pink objects marketed to women – from stuffed animals to toys, furniture, clothes, grooming, and sweetness products. Stitched-together onesies hang from the ceiling and envelop the visitor in an area that oscillates between suffocating and comforting. Like “Pink Project: Table”, “Pink Bedroom” drives Munson’s commentary about mass consumerism, constructions of femininity, and the sexual objectification of ladies.

It’s in “Nude II”, a mannequin draped in breast-adorned mugs, and “Functional Women” (2016), an arrogance dresser with a table perched on top of it, cluttered with collected objects in the form of female forms and body parts – a coathanger, bottle opener, ashtray – that this commentary feels most potent. It’s a profoundly absurd collection underpinned by a double-entendre title. “It’s almost like doing cultural anthropology or something,” says Munson. “Like where I’m out and seeing these items where you would possibly think there’s just one style of boob mug or one type of weird woman torso lighter. But whenever you start collecting them, you realise there are multiple versions, many, many various objects like this.” 

Alongside the installation itself are paintings and drawings made by Munson. “They may appear to be a bit of kitschy strange thing,” she continues. “But I began investigating that to essentially take into consideration what it says about who we’re and what we value.”

“Our culture is so incredibly disrespectful to the environment and where we live. I feel that’s connected to disrespecting women or any undervalued group, to different indigenous peoples or minorities. There’s this real disregard and use of individuals, the land” – Portia Munson

While Munson’s works remain powerful years and even many years on, their meanings have expanded. As a young woman making art, feminism and sexual identity were the heart of that. Nonetheless, in newer years, the environmental critique of Munson’s plastic works has grow to be hard to disregard. “As I got older, and likewise after having children and eager about the environment more, the work didn’t really change,” she says. “It also became in regards to the environment and this massive amount of stuff we produce. I don’t think you may see (the work) without also realising there’s an excessive amount of plastic [in the world]…Our culture is so incredibly disrespectful to the environment and where we live. I feel that’s connected to disrespecting women or any undervalued group, to different indigenous peoples or minorities. There’s this real disregard and use of individuals, the land.”

She does, nonetheless, have hope in a latest generation of ladies artists carrying the baton of creating work that speaks on women’s and/or environmental issues. “It’s exciting to see the work that folks are making and the way work is being put out and that the brand new generations are pushing things,” she says. She lists Erin N. Riley, Francesca Dimattio, Corinne Spencer, Allison Schulnik, Maeve McCool, Bridget Mullen, Genevieve Gaignard, and Raven Halfmoon as a few of her favourites. 

Equally inspiring are the young people coming to have interaction along with her work. “Everybody was so completely happy,” she reflects on the night before. “I just felt super good about my work, and other people were really appreciating the experience of it, like really getting it and understanding it – the cultural critique of it and the infantilising of ladies.” 

It’s the primary time “The Pink Bedroom” has been shown on the Museum of Sex – its largest iteration ever – and I ponder, does this context change the work in any way? “I like that aspect of the context because I feel like my work at all times has had a metaphorical sexual undertone to it”, she explains, “so having it on this context really brings that out and makes it really clear.”

“I also love having my drawings and the watercolour, gouache, and oil paintings, and a few of those other sculptures, being all exhibited together. Many are sexually explicit, but I also made that work with a questioning mind. Like, what is that this about? What’s the culture saying about who we’re as women? What’s it attempting to sell us?”

Portia Munson: The Pink Bedroom runs at The Museum of Sex until July 26 2023.

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