Vintage Wedding

Wendy Vogel on Portia Munson

In the 1990s, Portia Munson’s scatter-art installations hit a collective nerve. Her manic assemblages of secondhand objects—often organized around a single color, such as pink—criticize both the politics of consumerism and the reproduction of gender norms through mass-produced items. Over the years, the balance between feminist and ecological concerns has fluctuated in the work. Yet this triumphant show puts her preoccupations with gender and commodification on equal footing.

The exhibition’s largest installation and namesake, Bound Angel, 2021, is a cutting take on patriarchal order and feminine expectations. Vintage wedding dresses cover a sixteen-foot-long oval table that is littered with cast-off objects tied up with string. The objects are mostly female figures, some of which are nude, in the form of little girls, cherubs, and saints, along with household items such as cups and soap dispensers adorned with women’s anatomical parts. The installation even has a candle in the shape of the Venus of Willendorf. White is the predominant color: shades of alabaster, porcelain, ivory, and eggshell, accentuated by the light from a variety of bare-bulbed lamps. All of the figures here are silenced or blinded by the pernicious white cords that bind them. Among the bric-a-brac are a handful of Black angels, symbols of feminine purity and holiness who underscore the suffocating paleness of Munson’s composition.

References to Surrealism abound in this collection of part-objects, which Munson assembled to create a whole “headless bride.” The accumulation of thread evokes Marcel Duchamp’s string installation at the 1942 “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition, which opened at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in Manhattan, as well as Hans Bellmer’s disconcerting images of fettered and dismembered dolls. The Surrealist equation between bodies and food, meanwhile, is recalled in Munson’s “Serving Trays” series, 2021–. In these smaller sculptural installations, pallid female figures are bound up and piled onto antique metal platters, ready for our consumption.

The show also included a selection of the artist’s two-dimensional works. The “Functional Women” series, 2018–, made up of fifty graphite drawings, depicts schlocky chauvinistic tchotchkes: Think souvenir boob mugs or a nutcracker in the form of a woman’s shapely legs. These monochromatic illustrations reflect the serious artistic labor Munson pours into the selection and treatment of her materials. At the same time, the images’ seeming innumerability and their almost clinical rendering speak to the overwhelming monotony and ubiquity of mass production. By contrast, Munson’s oil-on-linen paintings of bound figurines lack this conceptual flair. With their Impressionist-inspired floral backdrops, they offer up a great deal of folksy charm but little else.

The most Instagrammable piece of eye candy here, Today Will Be AWESOME2022, follows in the tradition of Munson’s most iconic work: her Pink Project Table, which was first shown in the landmark 1994 “Bad Girls” exhibition at the New Museum in Manhattan. Like Table, this work assembles hundreds of discarded objects in a range of lightened and sweetened reds. Using a reconfigured secretary cabinet and bar table as the display apparatus, Munson arranged dolls, clothes, stuffed animals, sleeping masks, free weights, and even a semi-hidden dildo. Soaring atop it all like a Christmas tree’s star is a headless mannequin wearing a sash emblazoned with the word FEMINIST. Munson paired this installation with thirteen watercolors of coral-colored lingerie, empty purses, and fake hair—cheerful but haunting stand-ins for the human body.

Munson’s pink works are enduring and continue to generate new meanings. In a contemporary light, they criticize the explosive production of disposable junk decor—created for banal occasions such as bachelorette or gender-reveal parties—littering the Earth. Munson is also pointedly commenting on the compatibility of capitalism with the twenty-first-century repackaging of feminism. Yet beneath all this gleeful chaos, the work possesses an undertone of bleak irony. This past summer, which was marked by a rollback of reproductive rights and escalating environmental catastrophe, the artist’s concerns were amplified to a deafening volume.