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Dildos, tampons and fake nails: inside Portia Munson’s Pink Bedroom

In 1994, Marcia Tucker, founder and director of the New Museum, opened a two-part show titled Bad Girls. It featured over 50 artists working across painting, sculpture, performance, film, and writing. Alongside Laura Aguilar, Guerrilla Girls, and Carrie Mae Weems was artist Portia Munson, a Cooper Union graduate who debuted thousands of collected pink objects meticulously arranged on a giant pink table: tampon applicators, dildos, fake nails, pacifiers, hair brushes, mirrors. It was titled “Pink Project (Table)” (1994 – ongoing).

Visually, the work resulted from Munson’s almost-obsessive collecting of pink objects since she was young. But it was also a comment on the marketing, reinforcing, and infantilising of femininity. As Munson says, all the things ‘girls are told they ‘need’. Writing in 1994 for the New York Times, critic Roberta Smith described Munson’s “Pink Project (Table)” as “one of the show’s few truly mesmerising moments”. More widely, Bad Girls provoked the ire of critics such as Jan Avgikos for Art Forum, but – as it goes – almost three decades on, the exhibition is a touchstone for third-wave feminist art.

Expanding on the meaning of a ‘bad girl’ in the show’s catalogue, Tucker wrote about the women artists defying the tropes of femininity “to define themselves according to their own terms, their own pleasures, their own interests, in their own way. But they’re doing it by using a delicious and outrageous sense of humour to make sure not only that everyone gets it but to really give it to them as well. That’s what we mean by ‘bad girls.’”

The morning after her opening at the Museum of Sex, Portia Munson: The Pink Bedroom – where works made in her three-decade career is being exhibited – “The Pink Bedroom” (1994 – ongoing), Functional Women, Her Body, and a new sculpture titled “Nude II” (2022) – Munson is speaking to Dazed over the phone from her home in the Catskills in southeastern New York. “I definitely have a very rebellious streak,” she says. “So I felt like being in a show at that time titled Bad Girls was really appropriate for me because I was making work that was very much against the minimalist, political – Hans Haacke or Vito Acconci – aesthetic.”

The energy of the 1980s, where the pop art of artists like Keith Haring reigned supreme, was snuffed out due to the Aids epidemic or drug overdoses (Jean Michel-Basquiat), and the extravagance that defined the decade largely fell alongside the stock market crash. Speaking to the New York Times in 1992, gallerist du jour Mary Boone said: “Value in everything is being questioned. The psychology of the 80s was excess; in the 90s, it’s all about conservation.”

But amongst the minimalism and masculinity of the decade, Munson, with her pink plastic, was an outlier. “As a young woman at the time, I definitely felt taken less seriously,” she recalls. “I had a boyfriend going to graduate school at Yale, and I was friends with all of these male artists who were peers at the time, who went on to become really well-known artists, and I did feel like I was a girlfriend; you know?” She laughs. “But somehow, that particular show, the Bad Girl show, shifted that for me and made me feel like I knew what I was doing.”

Munson was born in Massachusetts in 1961. From a young age, as the oldest of three, including two brothers, she realised that being a girl meant she’d experience life differently – while also being perceived differently – compared to men. “I was the oldest by three years, but still, there were things that they were allowed to do or that were different,” she recalls. “I remember being furious about that, even at a really young age. That just translated into my work and how I was seeing the world.”

It wasn’t just art that she saw the world through but how she spoke to it. Having severe dyslexia, Munson explains, “art was a way of expressing my intelligence or ideas, a way to express myself. It has always felt like my language.” Studying at Cooper Union in the late 1970s and early 80s brought her face-to-face with artist greats such as Barbara Kruger and Martha Rosler, and the praise from the Bad Girls show set her own trajectory off with an upwards motion. “I definitely remember when I first exhibited a large expanse of pink (“Pink Project: Table”) and that just felt like: ah, yes,” she adds.

“But it happens over and over again,” she continues. “Like showing my work at the opening (of MoSex) and having it resonate with people of all ages. Many were just old enough to get in and were really into it. A lot of people came up to me and thanked me for making it. It felt very gratifying.”

Munson began collecting pink objects to use as stand-ins for people and as metaphors for female bodies and the feminist ideologies she explored in her paintings. When she had children, she became hyper-aware of how people gender-identify babies through colours and objects. 

Then, she was living in Provincetown and frequenting the swap shops at the city’s dumps to decorate the rooms of her house. “I wasn’t really thinking ‘I’m making a piece now’,” she recalls. “I was just making something that made me feel good.” Soon, she began exhibiting them in small local galleries. “That was when I realised it was actually a work, and I could share it with people. When I moved back to New York City, I had a generously sized studio where I was living, but it was also my installation.”

Eventually, this private realm turned public, and the objects collected in her work-slash-home evolved into Munson’s largest work, an iteration of which is the centrepiece of her show at MoSex: “The Pink Bedroom”, described as an immersive “dream space, or a womb-like space” that “skirts the line between empowerment and entrapment”. It’s filled with thousands of repurposed pink objects marketed to women – from stuffed animals to toys, furniture, clothes, grooming, and beauty products. Stitched-together onesies hang from the ceiling and envelop the visitor in a space that oscillates between suffocating and comforting. Like “Pink Project: Table”, “Pink Bedroom” drives Munson’s commentary about mass consumerism, constructions of femininity, and the sexual objectification of women.

It’s in “Nude II”, a mannequin draped in breast-adorned mugs, and “Functional Women” (2016), a vanity dresser with a table perched on top of it, cluttered with collected objects in the shape of female forms and body parts – a coathanger, bottle opener, ashtray – that this commentary feels most potent. It’s a profoundly absurd collection underpinned by a double-entendre title. “It’s almost like doing cultural anthropology or something,” says Munson. “Like where I’m out and seeing this stuff where you might think there’s only one type of boob mug or one kind of weird woman torso lighter. But when you start collecting them, you realise there are multiple versions, many, many different objects like this.” 

Alongside the installation itself are paintings and drawings made by Munson. “They might seem like a little kitschy strange thing,” she continues. “But I started investigating that to really think about what it says about who we are and what we value.”

While Munson’s works remain powerful years or even decades on, their meanings have expanded. As a young woman making art, feminism and sexual identity were the guts of that. However, in more recent years, the environmental critique of Munson’s plastic works has become hard to ignore. “As I got older, and also after having children and thinking about the environment more, the work didn’t really change,” she says. “It also became about the environment and this massive amount of stuff we produce. I don’t think you can see (the work) without also realising there’s too much plastic [in the world]...Our culture is so incredibly disrespectful to the environment and where we live. I think that’s connected to disrespecting women or any undervalued group, to different indigenous peoples or minorities. There’s this real disregard and use of people, the land.”

She does, however, have hope in a new generation of women artists carrying the baton of making work that speaks on women’s and/or environmental issues. “It’s exciting to see the work that people are making and how work is being put out and that the new generations are pushing things,” she says. She lists Erin N. Riley, Ever Baldwin, Francesca Dimattio, Corinne Spencer, Allison Schulnik, Maeve McCool, Bridget Mullen, Genevieve Gaignard, and Raven Halfmoon as some of her favourites.

Equally inspiring are the young people coming to engage with her work. “Everybody was so happy,” she reflects on the night before. “I just felt super good about my work, and people were really appreciating the experience of it, like really getting it and understanding it – the cultural critique of it and the infantilising of women.” 

It’s the first time “The Pink Bedroom” has been shown at the Museum of Sex – its largest iteration ever – and I wonder, does this context change the work in any way? “I like that aspect of the context because I feel like my work always has had a metaphorical sexual undertone to it”, she explains, “so having it in this context really brings that out and makes it really clear.”

“I also love having my drawings and the watercolour, gouache, and oil paintings, and some of those other sculptures, being all exhibited together. Many are sexually explicit, but I also made that work with a questioning mind. Like, what is this about? What is the culture saying about who we are as women? What is it trying to sell us?”

Portia Munson: The Pink Bedroom runs at The Museum of Sex until July 26 2023.