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Pink Paradise: Portia Munson's Eco Feminism

My late summer visit to Portia Munson's home-studio in rural Catskill was among the most enchanting art experiences of the year. Nestled amid 80 acres teeming with flourishing gardens, seasonal flowers of all varieties, roaming pets, and impromptu shrines at every turn, the property is a magical abode that reflects her charming spirit. "I like to think of everything I do including my home and gardens as part of my work," she commented via email when we confirmed our date for my visit. I arrived on a pleasant afternoon and Munson welcomed me with warmth and grace. We journeyed through her imaginative and otherworldly home—a thriving installation unto itself—while groovy music infused the house and her two beautiful older children floated about, engaged in creative projects.

"I have always been a gatherer," Munson stated as we made our way to her airy loft-style studio on the second floor of a weathered barn. Outside, several shipping containers store thousands of miscellaneous objects that are the lifeblood of her sculptures and large-scale installations. When I asked her about the process of accumulating so many fascinating knickknacks, she laughed as she indicated how she oftentimes intercepts them "right before they are going to the landfill."

Munson's love of painting was her initial focus as an artist. Her ongoing series of works on paper that carefully detail her fleet of "functional women" objects as she calls them—a bottle opener in the shape of a female torso, for example—reflect her superior technique as a draftswoman from her years as student at Cooper Union during the early 1980s, where she studied with the likes of Martha Rosler, Jack Whitten, and Barbara Kruger. She smiled as she recalled attending a performance by the band Suicide at Keith Haring's loft downtown. "In 1979, I moved to the East Village—the world felt wide open. I was influenced and inspired by so much," she said.

The city was home for the next 13 years as Munson attended school and worked a string of jobs, including driving a cab, house painting, and working at MoMA's bookstore. Weekends were spent dancing at the clubs of the day, including CBGB, the Palladium, and Studio 54. Represented by P·P·O·W gallery in Manhattan, Munson is now an established international artist (and she currently has a large outdoor banner at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli up through the fall season). It was during her student years that Munson started collecting assorted pink objects to pose as the subjects of her paintings and she began to identify her collection of pinkish things—soon a sizable horde—as the basis for the next phase of her work, which led to the creation of sculptures and installations with her pink-hued treasures.

Having seen her art at various locations, including the Flag Foundation in Manhattan and Art Omi in Ghent, her installations are dynamic, multilayered environments that seem almost impossible in their wildly organized orchestration. Munson states that she is always involved in the process of placing the thousands of items that comprise her installations, everything from girly dolls to sizable dildos and everything else imaginable. "Collecting pink was very much about my own identity," she says about this kind of personal research into her practice and her progression from painter to sculptor.

Her recent exhibition "Portia Munson: The Pink Bedroom" at the Museum of Sex in New York City included her room-sized installation of every pink thing known to humankind, indeed a sculptural marvel and a reflection of her carefully crafted universe. When we chatted about this work, she spoke of the dominant representations of white women as she mused about "what is means to be beautiful" and "what it means to be a woman." Surrounded by endless stashes of joyful feminine effects, Munson appeared much like a kind seamstress in her private harem of ceramic ladies repurposed as lamps, toys, religious icons, and other bizarre incarnations. She has always been driven by the notion of the "idea" with respect to her art: "What is the best way to get the idea across?" she asked as we hovered over a table densely packed with amusing oddities, all consisting of women as the subject of the eclectic paraphernalia.

Toward the end of my stay, we spoke of the complicated role of women in society and the environmental devastation of our shared Mother Earth. Munson said that with her art, she aspires to "reflect back what I am seeing in the culture of today." She notes the confused messaging of the objects that comprise her layered worlds, items that suggest that a woman can be warped into a toilet paper dispenser or a tacky souvenir coffee mug with oversized breasts, all while a staggering proliferation of plastic injects itself into our natural world. Munson wants her art to be an experience that is both "beautiful and disgusting." For Munson, life in the Catskills is about living on the edge of wilderness with the modern world flowing downstream, "complete with our plastic trash and yard sales along the sides of the road," she comments. "Observing this juxtaposition—the 'city' influence on nature—is what my work comes out of."