Art

Life and Death in Portia Munson’s Garden

The centerpiece of her new exhibition at PPOW is “The Garden” (1996–98), a kaleidoscopic, room-filling installation housing hundreds if not thousands of artificial flowers under a canopy of sewn together flower print dresses.

Portia Munson, “Her Coffin” (2016), plastic, tempered glass, and table, 22 1/2 x 14 1/2 x 70 in (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The pink toys filling artist Portia Munson’s glass casket in her show The Garden at PPOW will certainly outlast you and me. They’ll persist as they are, either wedged into their human-size vitrine and labeled “Her Coffin” (2016), or perhaps only as individual objects that refuse to decompose in the ground on their own. Their plastic material ties them to our lifetime, as does their color, which marks them as gendered, an association likely to stick as long as contemporary marketing does.

Portia Munson, “Functional Women” (2016–ongoing), found objects, dresser, and table, 69 x 40 x 25 in

The coffin, covered by gallery staff at night to prevent fading, is one of two installations in the show’s front room. “Functional Women” (2016–ongoing) stands nearby, six feet tall. Stacked on a black dresser is a small, four-legged table. Both of their tops are inundated with utilitarian and decorative goods fashioned as women (or parts of them) and girls — coin banks, clothes hangers, cups and vessels of all kinds — arranged by increasing size toward the installation’s towering center. The shrine’s exalted centerpiece is a full-size mannequin bust, iconic and anonymous, an everywoman, both consumer and consumed. It’s a curious choice, given that this crowning readymade marks a recent past in which caucasian beauty was unapologetically promoted as the exemplar for commercial manufacturing. Munson, for such reasons, speaks of these installations as “time capsules.”

Portia Munson, “Ruby-Throated Hummingbird” (2015), pigment inkjet print, 15 x 22 in, edition 1/5

The artist’s first widely-known work of jam-packed feminine bric-a-brac was the “Pink Project” at the New Museum’s Bad Girls (Part I) show (1994). Singled out at the time by Roberta Smith as “one of the show’s few truly mesmerizing moments,” the installation was restaged at Frieze London recently and it’s represented here, behind the counter, in the large C-print “Pink Project: Table” (2016). It finds its parallels in seven photographs in the gallery’s back room that also display the artist’s hand for optical orchestration. They are flatbed scans, rather than traditional photos, of recently deceased birds that she discovers and adorns with flowers collected from her garden. Rites of passage, they are sacred gifts to both the animal and the viewer. While her installations may be containers of time, photographs such as “Pleated Woodpecker” (2016) and “Ruby-Throated Hummingbird” (2015) honor its transience, or at least its cyclicality.

Portia Munson, “Pleated Woodpecker” (2016), pigment inkjet print, 15 x 22 in, edition 1/5

On the walls of the gallery’s first two rooms are a couple dozen small, still life paintings of stereotypically “female” objects, spaciously installed. They abandon the horror vacui aesthetic of all of Munson’s other projects by isolating one or two objects within a largely empty space. Compare this tactic to “Doll House Reliquary” (2010), a Tudor-style dollhouse filled entirely of animal bones. The still lifes, with their unbound sense of space, appear more dependent on each other for completion, or on the installations, in umbilical relation.

Portia Munson, “Doll House Reliquary” (2012), doll house and bones, 32 x 48 in

The holy of holies in the show is the installation “The Garden” (1996-98), which fills the gallery’s back right room. A tent canopy fabricated of girls’ flowered dresses, their sleeves intact and draping, spans the room’s interior. The kaleidoscopic top hovers above customary bedroom furniture and hundreds if not thousands of artificial flowers in the form of plastic bouquets, lamps, pillows, knickknacks, decorations, etc. On the bed are plush bunnies that spill forth from the headboard onto the mattress en masse. There is no space for a body. The haunting extravagance of “The Garden” is transportive, as death should be.

Munson creates her art out of the cycles of life — more reverie than representation. Her work follows beauty, which by virtue of its strangeness, asks us to reorient ourselves and find whatever is at its source.

Portia Munson, “The Garden” (1996–98), mixed media installation
Portia Munson, “The Garden” (1996–98), mixed media installation (detail)

Portia Munson: The Garden continues at PPOW Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 11.

comments (0)