Why Portia Munson matters
Bound Angel – July 7 – August 19, 2022
392 Broadway, New York, NY 10013
I did not predetermine my visit to the P•P•O•W Gallery in Tribeca. It was not on my list, nor was it in Chelsea next to the megawatt galleries I usually asterisk. It was happenstance that I stepped inside the gallery and was immediately transfixed by Portia Munson’s work. Initially, I was reminded of Chris Antemann’s porcelains in her Forbidden Fruit series. Both artists work with porcelain figurines and both feature women portrayed in clay. While ceramist Antemann reverses gender and plays with the role of women, Portia Munson flips the white ceramic figure on its head by exposing its role in objectification, racism, and consumerism.
Wedding lace, electrical cord, rope, and twine
Ms. Munson’s Bound Angel exhibit points an accusing finger at consumers besot with beauty. Her 2020 work, Bound Angel, is built on a boat-like oval table, a shape chosen for its feminine curves. The three-dimensional, all white multimedia installation underlines a substantive statement on gender norms that bind women to marriage and servitude. The table is beautifully wrought, and the objects are carefully curated. When I spoke with Portia Munson this week, she described making the tablecloth from more than a half-dozen wedding dresses, veils, and lace that provides the base for the work. According to Ms. Munson, the idea of using a wedding dress came early for her to document women in passive roles. Ms. Munson states “the entire sculpture forms the shape of a bound and faceless bride.” The largest bust serves as the figurehead of the piece, steering the conversation across the wedding lace to the provocative Caucasian porcelain figurines wrapped in electrical cords, rope, and twine. Lamps with lit bulbs highlight the barriers women face to escape societal expectations and the male gaze. The central figure references the bare-breasted figureheads carved into the bows of British ships of the 1700s and 1800s to please the sea. Interestingly, the weight of these carvings disturbed the vessels’ balance. The impact of Portia Munson’s sculpture is almost audible.
Prior to shipping, she “carefully photographed” the sculpture she had over time laid out and arranged on the oval custom-made table in her Catskill studio. Then, she packed the work by sections and by series to ship to Tribeca. After moving the installation, she noted that a few objects cracked, contributing more context to her vision. It took four days to install the entire show at the P•P•O•W. Trained in drawing and painting, she earned her BFA in 1983 at Cooper Union, studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and received her MFA from Rutgers University Masson Gross School of the Arts. She has taught at SVA, Yale, NYU, Vassar, and SUNY Purchase. In addition to earning a Pollack-Krasner grant in 2019, she has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, and Italy’s Civitella Ranieri; experiences she values as opportunities to focus on her work.
Homogenized Angels at the Goodwill store
During a 2017 residency in Portland, Oregon, she was sourcing for another piece and noticed a pattern. White porcelain angels with idealized bodies were for sale in gift shops, consignment stores, and antique shops. Their white polished porcelain surfaces depicted a conflicted view of “innocence” and “lurid” sexuality. She questioned the messages they sent about “what it means to be a woman.”
What began as a mass-produced porcelain figure, likely mass produced in China, begat distribution to main street gift shops to be sold and “protected” by glass curio cabinet doors. People collected what Munson calls “innocuous” objects that collect dust instead of distain, later boxed, and repurposed for another’s collection and for Portia Munson to unveil for our eyes.
The innocent and blank faces in Bound Angel confront the presumed fragility of females. The collection of Mary busts, heaving breasts, shoulder to shoulder with waist-thin Lladro figurines, and angels for Christmas trees and for titillation, stand breast to breast with downcast eyes. Demure, and shy, passively accepting and agreeing to the viewer’s gaze. They made me blush. I recognize them. They are the bric-a-brac from my grandmother’s collection.
Unfortunate Perfect Timing
Portia agrees that now, as courts and state legislators are dismantling a woman’s control over her body, is the perfect moment for her work to be seen and put out into the world. This is not a new trajectory for the artist. She continues to collect objects that fascinate, gathering and curating what she discovers in the world. In her curation, she notes subtle regional differences, like one might expect such as antebellum Southern belles and beach body goddesses in resorts. She has applied for a grant and plans to spend time in different parts of the country, as she cannot separate women’s rights from the environmental costs of consumerism.
Lining the walls of the gallery is her series of fifty pencil drawings, Functional Women, that documents functional objects that degrade and sexualize women. She notes her insistence on having as many as fifty drawings to be hung to name the multitude of kinky objects available. With pencil, Ms. Munson drew detailed marvels: lighters with boobs, nutcracker with legs, and ashtrays with splayed body parts mass produced with lewd intent. There is nothing funny about my personal fury about the images that construct a manifesto about consumerism with an androcentric viewpoint.
A series of sculptures built on silver platters speak as eloquently as the larger installations. In one of the works, Serving Tray 6 is 29 x 171/2 x 18 inches, the primary porcelain bust is bound with rope to silence and blind her eyes. This woman is visible but not allowed to see, nor permitted to speak. Surrounding smaller figures are equally immobilized by twine and string.
Today Will Be Awesome
Ms. Munson not only curated her collection, but she demarcated the gallery space. The visitor, complicitly soothed by the white images, turns past a half wall to the eye-popping today will be Awesome, a sculpture of a woman resplendent with a beauty pageant sash, “FEMINIST.” Her figure emerges from a salvaged bar table trimmed with “It’s a Girl” ribbon, a deconstructed secretary desk, and a cabinet, cascading with lingerie and bikinis. The installation/sculpture asks why pink is associated with females and invites the viewer to circle the figures soaked and bathed in hot pink. There are Pink Ponys, Kewpie dolls, anorexic Bratz dolls, rainbow unicorns, and other recognizable toys that market idealized features to prepubescent girls. On the walls of this smaller space in the gallery are pieces rendered in pink watercolor, gouache, and oil, detailing gloves, garters, and tiny bikini tops.
The exhibit can be viewed at 392 Broadway, until August 19th. The women-owned P•P•O•W Gallery opened on 216 10Street in 1983 in the East Village. After a move to Soho, and then to Chelsea, owners Penny Pilkington and Wendy Olsoff opened the Tribeca location in 2021. With the addition of the second floor of 390 Broadway, the gallery will expand in September. Portia Munson has been showing with P•P•O•W for fifteen years. Her fifth show with Ms. Pilkington and Ms. Olsoff follows their nearly forty years of supporting contemporary artists who confront sexuality, gender, and racism.
Also, on view by Ms. Munson, Flood, a solo exhibition at Art Omi in Ghent, New York through September 25th. And The Garden, 1996 – 2019 mixed-media installation at 21C in Louisville, Kentucky through October.