It’s hard to think back that far but there really was a time when some people thought feminist art couldn’t be funny. Well, the seminal (pun intended) 1994 “Bad Girls” show at the New Museum should have driven a stake through the heart of that canard. In particular, Portia Munson’s epic Pink Project: Table—a raucous found-object installation of girly-girl knick-knacks, sex toys, and other assorted hot pink junk—was a hilarious scene-stealer, as well as a brilliant tear-down of gender coding mechanics. Her incisive and sardonic humor carries on in PPOW’s “The Garden,” a survey of her work over the last two decades. Toxic hot pink tchotchkes abound, as well as paintings, photographs, prints, and installations such as the eponymous The Garden, (1996-98), a room that looks like a combination opium den and pre-pubescent girl’s bedroom on ayahuasca. The evident skill and evolving intelligence in this survey make a good case that Munson deserves a wider audience.
Over the course of her career, Munson’s concerns have remained largely consistent. For those who caught the “Bad Girls” show, Her Coffin (2016), amounts to a Pink Project redux, where Munson crams a coffin-sized glass vitrine with dreadful you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up pink plastic trinkets that prove mindless sexism lives on. No doubt Munson was riffing on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, but perhaps she was also slyly referring to the deadening effects of stereotypes. As if the trash in Her Coffin weren’t bad enough, the on-going project Functional Women (2016) is a collection mounted on a chest of drawers featuring merchandise dedicated to the objectification of the female body: a huge mug in the shape of a breast, a coat hanger formed of two wide-spread doll’s legs, and so on.
Works in other media, such as her paintings, which are expertly crafted, share similar themes. Perfume (2016) depicts a spray bottle in the shape of a well-endowed female torso, with a nozzle where the head should be, on a flowered print background. As demeaning as the perfume bottle is, Munson brings it to life it by giving it viscera in the form of reflected colors from the patterned background. Several of the most recent works, such as Pileated Woodpecker (2016), a pigmented digital print of a dead woodpecker surrounded by flowers on a black background, have an elegiac rather than satirical emotional register. Proof that Munson is no one-trick pony, this somber turn should not surprise. No matter how angry, satire at its best is always tinged with the mournful awareness that that things could, indeed should, be otherwise.