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Portia Munson, The Garden, 2017, Dazed
“Man Alone”, 2000, oil on linen, 16 x 16 inchesCourtesy the artist and P.P.O.W

The enduring importance of feminist art

Artist Portia Munson discusses how her work has remained relevant over the past two decades and why now, more than ever, it could matter most

A glance at an art event’s geotag or hashtag on Instagram is direct evidence to which works hit a nerve, were most relatable, or most appealing. Earlier this year at London’s Frieze Art Fair, Portia Munson’s Pink Project: Table and its precariously positioned entirely pink presentation caught the eye of many in attendance. Although it flooded Instagram feeds, The Table was created in 1996, over 20 years ago.

A feminist and environmentalist artist, Munson works in a variety of mediums including photography, sculpture, painting, and installation focusing primarily on environmental and cultural themes from a feminist perspective, according to her website. She’s had over 20 solo shows, is responsible for public works at the Albany International Airport in upstate New York, at New York City’s Bryant Park subway station, and has even taught classes at New York University, Yale School of Art, Vassar College and SUNY Purchase. She’s also been in the game for over 20 years. But the single more intriguing thing about Ms. Munson and her work is how her pieces transcend time. We’ve seen an increase of visibility on youth feminist artists as the US did not end up with its first female president, but a blatant misogynist instead. It’s for this reason why it’s poignant that Munson’s work resonates so strongly with young women today.

Upon entering the show, the first piece you’ll see is tucked below an antique plaque depicting a woman smoking a long, slender cigarette that read, “It’s Whats Up Front That Counts,” in the centre of the Functional Woman sculpture sits a black five inch tall vagina candle displaying the labia front and center. There’s a wedding dress strewn from the back, below all different sized ceramic breasts.

The show’s pieces are intertwined – exhibiting overtly sexual and empowering themes alongside morbid reminders of mortality and juvenile playfulness. Further, it speaks to not only women like herself, born in the early 1960s, living through feminism of that era, as much as younger feminists alike, purely because of the items included and depicted in her work. From plush stuffed bunnies to the Barbie-pink hair accessories and combs, and toys encased in glass in The Coffin, her composition makes it impossible to pinpoint when it was done – despite some pieces being nearly 20 years old – or her age.

The centre of the exhibit, The Garden, is suffocating with femininity, the dream bedroom of every stereotypical little girl packed with flowers, a jam-packed shadowbox of stuffed animals, and floral-printed dresses sewn together draped from the ceiling creating an exciting, and initially, happy feeling. However, as you spend more time enveloped within the youthful space, you begin to recognise the overwhelmingly artificial brightness forced from the faux flowers and manmade items. This juxtaposition is what Munson has created for us to explore, the manmade darkness beneath the surface fun and beauty.

Her solo show at New York’s P.P.P.O.W. Gallery, entitled The Garden, includes work from 1996 up until 2016 and is on now through to February. We sat down with Munson at the show’s opening last week to discuss her process, and how the changes in feminism in the last 20 years has influenced her work.

You have work here from 1996 all the way through to last year. How has your view of feminism changed and how has it affected the work we see here?

Portia Munson: I think because feminism, the word, the idea, is kind of having a resurgence. I think it’s happened before, but it’s sort of a backlash to the new Trump era. It’s like women want to not be objectified, be really female, be really women, but be strong. That’s exciting, and I think when I was first doing my work I was very much reacting to that type of thing by being told, because I was born in the early ‘60s, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that. You’re a girl’.  That kind of thing. Any comments like that had the opposite effect on me. They made me feel like, ‘Of course I can. Of course I can’. I think a lot of my work is looking at and pointing out certain kinds of subtle things in the culture. Like Functional Women, you see one Functional Women object and it’s kind of funny and cute, but then when you start to see them amassed or collected you realised there are these different themes and ideas going on that are objectifying women and not how you want to be perceived or seen.

I think there was a time when feminism sort of became a little bit of a bad word or like, not so cool. It’s very exciting right now that it feels like it’s becoming really cool and having power. And that’s really exciting, and it’s a really important thing in our political climate.

Why do you think your work over the last 20 years resonates with women so much today?

Portia Munson: I suppose because the issues I'm addressing are still relevant. Though one thing that's happened is that over time is my work has become more and more linked with environmentalism as it connects with feminism. It seems there are some things in the culture that haven't changed that much, which is part of what the work addresses, but now there's this added layer of the impact that our culture is having on the environment. I feel my work is reflecting the culture; I'm using the readymade to reflect back what is out there.

I would hope that my work doesn't only resonate with women, though, of course, it will have special impact for women. I noticed when showing Pink Project: Table again at Frieze London this year that young men were really responding to it in a way they hadn't seemed to back when it was first shown at the New Museum in 1994.

What do you think of the newer generations' different tools for expression?

Portia Munson: It's a really different world today because of how interconnected everything is. I think the way you can connect with a large audience quickly is a great thing. I've been so impressed with some younger artists who have used social media to great effect, to spread their ideas and get their work out there. Ideas circulate very quickly and I like seeing what people are doing and exploring. For instance, artists have always used the cast off stuff of culture (trash) to make their work, but I notice more young artists using plastic detritus. Also, I think it's interesting how social media itself gets cycled into some young artists' work – it becomes part of the subject.

When did you first realise your artwork was going to be primarily inspired by feminism?

Portia Munson: Really early on. I knew that really, really early on. It affected many decisions I made like where I was going to go to grad school or what I was going to do. I didn’t want to go to any programme when I was younger that was going to mess with my content. I needed to perfect my craft, but I knew what I wanted to say.

Do you think where you were raised had anything to do with that?

Portia Munson: I was born in Massachusetts but raised on Long Island, not far from New York. I had a very lovely, somewhat privileged middle-class upbringing. I think it was maybe just being an artist and being aware and looking at the contradictions. There are always these contradictions that exist in culture and just thinking about that and wanting to point that out.

It feels really exciting and seems exciting for the next generation. I really understand it feel like to be able to connect with that it’s really empowering. It’s a really cool thing and it gives me hope. I also think about it as a mother. I have a son and a daughter. My son is 22 and my daughter is 17. I feel like it’s really exciting to think of them as feminists and be challenging things environmentally because I think of myself as an environmentalist feminist. For me, those things are completely intertwined.

Is there any one project, piece, or class you’ve taught that was most rewarding for you and why?

Portia Munson: It’s really hard for me to say. I think it was truly very thrilling to have done the pink project table when I did that and to have it really resonate. It was a rebellious piece at the time that I did it. Different professors and people at school were like, “No, you can’t do that.” For me, that always made me that much more exciting and wanting to do it. That piece has always remained very thrilling, and it was exciting for me to show it again at Frieze over 20 years later and for it to have such an impact again. I feel really proud of that.

It’s also really exciting for me to show The Garden. Those pieces are very intertwined and connected to my paintings. My paintings are much slower and simpler and more meditated, but they kind of inform each other.

How would you like to see your work inspire other women?

Portia Munson: I hope there are things they find in my work that are freeing. I hope it will inspire people to be really true to their own aesthetic. I've very much just followed my own passions, my interests, my aesthetic. I'm showing a certain amount of fun and sense of humor in my work, as well as presenting a cultural critique, and I like to think of all my work as being on some level beautiful and seductive while at the same time a bit off-putting or uncomfortable. I think you have to find out what it is that holds your attention, even if it's an ordinary object. The pink things, or the objects in The Garden, might not have much impact on their own or in a small group, but all together they can add up to something powerful. And with the paintings, by focusing on a mundane object and elevating it to a "high art" level by making it the subject of an oil painting, I'm able to uncover layers of meaning that wouldn't be evident at first glance. But those objects are the things that capture my interest – others will find different things that capture theirs.