Portia Munson On the “Stuff” That Defines Femininity
It wasn’t until the 1940s that clothiers decided to color-code baby girls and boys in pink and blue. In the decades prior, parents began to dress their infants in pastel colors, but not those one might expect; pink, seen as a color of strength, was often chosen for boys, while it was common for a baby with blue eyes, regardless of sex, to wear complementary hues of blue. The tradition of boys in blue, girls in pink temporarily went out of fashion during the Women’s Liberation Movement, though it resurged in full force in the ’80s.
In the mid-’90s, when artist Portia Munson had her first child, she was already steeped in the significance of pink, and questioning its relation to gender and beauty. One day she photographed her infant son dressed in pink with a pink blanket and toys, and again in blue. “I saved all of that stuff because I thought ‘well, maybe one day I’ll have a girl.’ And then, five years later, my daughter was born and I did the same exact photographs, set up the same way.”
She would later show all four photographs together, collapsing the colors’ associations with gender and subverting the arbitrary tradition altogether. Two decades later, as the rigid mores of gender remain equally problematic, Munson’s works are fresh as ever. At an all-too-timely moment, the artist is resurfacing older works and debuting new ones in a show at P.P.O.W, fiercely reasserting her commitment to feminism and addressing the objectification of women head-on.
Portrait of Portia Munson, courtesy of P.P.O.W Gallery.
The resonance of Munson’s work in the present was affirmed this past October at Frieze Week. The centerpiece of P.P.O.W’s feminist-focused stand at Frieze London, her Pink Project: Table (1994/2016), a surface covered in a taxonomy of discarded pink plastic objects—combs, mirrors, heart-shaped boxes, dildos, deodorants—was lauded widely, dominating column inches, Instagram feeds, and cocktail conversations. It’s a prime example of the artist’s deft ability to harness the trappings of femininity that have so long defined and confined women, in service of a sharp, at times dark, critique.
“I was always really attracted to and loved the color pink, but I think I wanted to know what it was about,” she explains. “When I got to art school, and later, I was thinking, well what is it about this color? Why am I attracted to it? It can’t just be that it symbolizes passive prettiness.” She went on to expound the color’s force, and to capitalize on the way it has been used to categorize women.
“It was kind of amazing, after twenty-something years, that it felt so fresh,” Munson says of the reception for the piece at Frieze, a revival of a work first made in 1994. “People were definitely really into it the first time it was shown, but the first time maybe it was almost scarier,” she offers. “I feel like the meaning shifted a little, from being read entirely in terms of gender—it is a very strong gender piece—to including the idea of plastic, consumerism, and commodities. I think it has a kind of double hit now.” Indeed, the series has led Munson to approach the plastic objects for their toxicity, their carcinogenic properties, and their destruction to ocean life.
Installation view of Her Coffin, 2016. Photo courtesy of P.P.O.W Gallery.
On the eve of her new show’s opening, we stand in the gallery’s first room in front of a new iteration of the project, Her Coffin (2016), a glass case filled with pink plastic objects arranged according to an ombre spectrum of deep fuchsia to pale rose. With these works she’s now interested in “imagining an end to plastic,” a future where we look back on plastic as we do with lead now. Her Coffin is meant to be a sort of time capsule; Munson was thinking about the pink ribbon products that proliferate for breast cancer awareness each October, and the irony that many of those objects are made from or packaged within carcinogenic plastic. She’s planning a future work that will be similar in format, though with blue plastic objects, that she’ll title Contents of a Whale’s Belly.
When Munson began “The Pink Project” in 1994, though, the environmental effects of plastic were not a widespread concern. The series was born from a collection of objects she had amassed as subjects for still-life paintings. “The collection itself started to take up a lot of space, and I realized, oh, that’s actually a work too,” she recalls. Presented in thoughtful, orderly rows and arrangements, these works appeal not only for their organization, but also their scale—thousands of manmade objects that together speak to the ubiquity of feminine ideals and expectations.
This same scale and organization, though applied to flowers, is fully present in the show’s crowning jewel, The Garden (1996). A work that Munson considers one of her greatest, it debuted in New York’s Yoshii Gallery in 1996, and in the time since has been restaged a handful of times, though not in New York again until now. The work is a bedroom, wildly overflowing with fake plastic flowers, plush bunnies, and floral-printed everything; the faint synthetic smell of flowery air freshener wafts through the space, while a soft soundtrack hums, resembling the tinny tunes of a music box with a ballerina swirling inside of it. The ceiling is a luminous tent of floral-printed vintage dresses sewn together. A rabbit sculpture made from fake flowers perches on a table, blending into its abundant surroundings.
Installation view of The Garden, 1996. Photo courtesy of P.P.O.W Gallery.
The room, which is roped off with stanchions like a period room at the Met, overwhelms with information, as well as with a sense of nostalgia—a connecting thread throughout Munson’s work, which ferments well over time. “I was blown away by how trendy and expensive some of these dresses are now,” Munson says, gesturing to the frocks hanging above, which she had originally sourced from thrift shops. “Now the work has maybe a heavier nostalgic feeling than when I first did it, which seems different,” she explains. “What I was really thinking about was being associated with flowers as a woman… if you wanted to be really pretty, you’d wear flowers and flower scents.”
A bed nearly covered with stuffed rabbits and a glass-framed case crammed with similar dolls in the installation function as superfluous signifiers of fertility. Yet this celebration of a feminine world is also a memorial to it—funeral arrangements of bursting bouquets. “It’s all artificial; it’s female, pretty, flowery, but also dead. So it’s kind of both about life and death at the same time,” Munson says.
And while The Garden emits a spectacularly engrossing energy, it’s Functional Women (2016) that takes the objectification of women to task most directly. The work is the product of some five years of collecting objects that portray the female body, some of which also feature in small oil paintings on the walls. “I love the readymade—things that are just out there,” Munson reflects, “and I think a lot of my work is about editing, collecting, and choosing.”
In this case, she has collected ceramic figurines of busty ladies, cups with boobs, miniature high-heeled boots, manicured hands meant to hold rings. “I’m pointing things out through stuff that our culture is consuming.” The objects are arranged on a chest of drawers in such a way that it evokes the female form as a whole—a cluster of eccentric, at times offensive, objects that portray the ideal woman.
I ask for Munson’s impressions of being a feminist artist now, at a moment when long-overlooked female artists are being given due attention, and young women are proud to identify as feminist. “[Feminist] was almost more of a dirty word for a while there,” she acknowledges as we take a seat among The Garden’s explosion of artificial flowers. “I’ve been really noticing that, reading about it and seeing it on Instagram, there’s so much pride and strength in it now.”
I point to her Functional Women work, the first objects visitors will see as they enter the show, as representing an urgent statement to be making now. “Now, with this whole new administration coming in, it’s so important, right?” she replies. “It’s almost more important than ever for women to be putting that kind of power and energy out there, to really critique our roles and perceptions and expectations.”