Review: Artist Portia Munson tackles modern feminism at PPOW Gallery
“bound angel,” environmentalist and feminist artist Portia MunsonTribeca’s solo exhibition at PPOW Gallery in Tribeca asks us to confront the sad state of modern feminism: stuck under a pile of bric-a-brac. The three installations, made from a host of second-hand objects, and 50 paintings and drawings of individual objects, composed with solemn respect for the pretty uselessness of it all, are on view until August 19.
You could be trapped in Munson’s sticky exploration of objectification for much longer. The girls, eyes, and rope that dot the exhibit are as disturbing as they are beautiful. Seeing Munson’s objects stacked in their respective sculptures reminds you of the weight of the objects in your own home and the American Girl dolls you once threw away. They stink up the atmosphere now, but you ever thought they might tell you what a “girl” is supposed to be.
Portia Munson’s daughters are TJ Maxx flirts, a way of flirting with a consumerist society’s desire for self-discovery. The elements of the eponymous sculpture angel bound, built on a table covered with wedding dresses thrown like a biscuit covered with a fine royal icing, seems to be singing, seducing and smothering at the same time. Objects like a white woman’s head, a white woman’s hand, and a white porcelain bust of Mary are all cloistered, blinded, and tied with white rope. These objects, glazed and baked rococo girls you may have once seen in a broken china cabinet, are presented to you breasts forward in a claustrophobic unit.
Nightstanda compact and colorful version of angel bound with more cramped pale angels and worldly women, is punctuated with the same sell-out erotica. The hems of the skirts are outlined with graceful faux gold or ribbons, and some girls carry fans and crudely carved implements. They’re also linked suggestively, and you’re invited to glimpse the details, romantic and frilly advertisements. The figures alone are a Lana Del Rey song about pussy, Pepsi and daddies. In the context of angel boundthese items insistently coded by women transcend their calculated sexuality and price, and instead tell the story of a submissive, purchased feminist individualism.
According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in the test Three texts by women and a critique of imperialism, “feminist individualism in the age of imperialism is precisely the making of human beings”. His essay refers to Jane Eyrebut, with his figurines, “angel bound“ indicates that imperialist assertions of what is sufficiently “feminine” still litter our coffee tables.
Spivak continues, “this issue is represented on two registers: procreation and the making of the soul”. NightstandThe figurines of us show the making of the soul marketed to us in the stealthy details, held puppies, and tiered skirts, which are slight acknowledgments of supposedly female-approved interests. These interests, of course, contribute to making women fit for marriage and childbearing. When we buy these objects, we accept and absorb this message.
It’s a degrading practice, but Munson recognizes its aesthetic appeal. That’s what makes angel bound feel so dangerous – the objects in it shouldn’t exist, their existence actively harms the Earth and our self-image, but they are still beautiful. Dull light bulbs with more women wearing a beanie at their base are spinning angel boundof the tabletop into a globe of melting candles, warm and inviting. However, cleverly, Munson makes his installation so dense that the clutter is impossible to ignore. We and the miniatures are overwhelmed with this shit. The objects themselves want us to identify with the natural unnatural, their sculpted flowers and smooth faces, but Munson forces us to feel the consequences of this indulgence on our real bodies and on the Earth. To our detriment, feminism and nature are trapped in plastic.
“Why did we make the cheeseburger a totem food, a real member of the family, a symbol of the national clan?” asks Professor Bill Brown in his 2001 essay “Thing Theory”. Although not as delicious as a cheeseburger (“Too many calories!”), the angel bound figurines say), items like the feather boa, plastic bead necklace, and smiling yogurt pink fairy in Munson’s flamingo-colored sculpture today will be awesome are group symbols. By buying them and putting them on our shelves, women hope to both represent and define themselves as a unit. The polyester FEMINIST belt, for example, which Munson dons over a headless bust, is an announcement of who the wearer believes they are and how they want to be perceived. This line of thinking takes pleasantly little effort – to be a feminist, all you have to do is proclaim yourself in hot pink.
“Freed from the bond of equipment, supported outside the irreversibility of technological history, the object becomes something else,” writes Brown. But although items like the FEMINIST Belt are regularly packaged as gear by Hillary Clinton’s Etsy Shops (“You need me for the revolution!” says the belt) they are really and inevitably just garbage.
In Munson’s art, their uselessness is emphasized, dramatized and praised. This poor FEMINIST belt, condemned to live out her days on a headless bust. But today will be awesome implies that the belt imbues her headless bust with the same amount of feminism as a human wearer. The article is a symbol, yes, but its message is strained and diluted by tag sales and mall dates. What the object symbolizes loses its meaning outside of provocative and critical look of “Bound Angel”.
“However we twist and turn it,” writes Heidegger, “this is how the construction of things shows itself; and around them are space and time, like their frame. Or as Avril Lavigne sings, “why did you have to go make it so complicated?” The second-hand objects of “Bound Angel” floated aimlessly through time and space, tearing apart a void in place of femininity, until they landed in the exhibition. Now that they’re all in front of us, Munson wants the objects to force us to confront the self-conscious monstrosities we build, buy and toss in droves every day.
She makes us discover our waste more closely in her still lifes. Some examples : Bottle opener depicts a slender woman made for popping beer bottle caps, salt shaker is a woman’s head made to flavor fries, and Nutcracker shows a pair of metal thighs for cracking peanuts. The designs themselves are understated and engaged, a hand writing in soft gray graphite that not all of these female-objects are unified, they are how we sell submission to the zombie brain.
The only way to thwart this is to untie the white rope that binds you. You won’t find truth, solidarity or art in a purchasable item,”angel bound” asserts itself gracefully and viscerally. For feminism and the world to survive, we must generate belief, not waste.