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Portia Munson’s busy, bright installation at 21c Museum Hotel invites deeper contemplation

"'The Garden' reminds me of being a little kid and seeing the magical window displays at department stores in New York City at Christmas time, or seeing the sugar-coated Easter eggs with an open window to a little world inside, and that feeling of discovering a dense imaginary world," says artist Portia Munson of her installation on show at 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville.

"Each surface in 'The Garden' is meticulously decorated with floral mementos, souvenirs and fake flowers, and the installation process feels very meditative -- almost how a little girl might arrange relics in her bedroom," Munson goes on. "An exciting element of 'The Garden' is that viewers discover objects that are relevant to their lives or things they may have or have had in the past..."

But that is where Munson's busy and brightly colored work of art takes a darker turn. The dense collection of objects -- everything layers deep, from ceiling to floor of the 15-by-15 square foot installation -- "speaks to the mass production of objects that becomes a part of a common visual culture," the upstate New York artist says.

"A claustrophobic den of beautiful refuse, the installation amplifies capitalism's vision of bourgeois femininity, where the act of acquiring to meet societal standards fuels the momentum of hyper-consumption and climate crisis," Munson says. "'The Garden' proposes that disrespect for the environment runs parallel to disregard for women, inviting viewers to meditate on the irony of manufacturing a regressive notion of beauty while simultaneously annihilating our natural world."

The largest artwork currently on show at 21c in Bentonville, "The Garden" is the centerpiece of an exhibit titled "Still, Life! Mourning, Meaning, Mending," open through December.

As a whole, says 21c Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites, the exhibit "is an attempt to reflect on the collective experience we've had worldwide over the last nearly three years: responding to the pandemic, to civic trauma, and to climate crisis, we've had to deal with loss, injustice, and a heightened sense of vulnerability -- our shared humanity has been illuminated in many ways.

"'Still, Life! Mourning, Meaning, Mending' acknowledges these experiences and features artworks that reflect how art can offer solace and inspiration during times of uncertainty, while proposing new understandings and approaches for the future," she says.

Created by Munson in 1996 -- or at least, begun in 1996 -- "The Garden" was acquired by 21c Museum Hotels founder Steve Wilson for $225,000, according to The Art Newspaper in December 2019. Like many of the exhibits seen at the 10 21c Museum Hotels across the country, it is part of the permanent collection created by Wilson and co-founder Laura Lee Brown.

"21c Museum Hotels was founded with a mission to expand access to contemporary art," says curator Stites. "Without the exhibitions and cultural programming, the locations would not be 21c; the art is integral and integrated into our all of our spaces and our identity."

In addition to pieces from the permanent collection, "we also borrow works from artists and other galleries and museums from time to time," Stites says. "When the exhibitions travel, new artworks are often added, both new acquisitions to the permanent collections and loans. The exhibition's theme often shifts a bit to reflect changing perceptions, knowledge, and conditions; we 'copy/morph,' not 'copy/paste,' so each iteration of an exhibition is different, making it worthwhile for any visitors who have seen a show in another location to experience it again."

"The Garden" was previously shown at 21c Louisville in 2021-22, Art Basel Miami in 2019, and PPOW gallery in New York City in 2016, among other institutions, Munson says.

Munson says her art practice started with painting at a young age.

"My ah-ha moment came when I was in elementary school," she says. "I struggled with dyslexia, [and] in art class I was inspired by an amazing art teacher. I remember thinking, 'I'm an artist, and this is what I'm going to do.' For me, I had found what I love to do and a perfect way to express myself.

"Probably from fifth grade on, I took Saturday painting classes and attended an art high school and would also go to the Arts Students League in New York City -- often followed by dancing at Studio 54! Now, I work in a variety of mediums including sculpture, installation, photography, painting and drawing, working from an environmentalist and feminist perspective."

As for "The Garden," Munson says it started "living in Provincetown, Mass. I collected many of the objects from a Swap Shop -- a free thrift store -- at the local dump, and the piece has been added to and evolving ever since."

"'The Garden' is completely made of detritus and found, used objects," Munson says. "In this piece, I am thinking about manufactured ideas of beauty and nature, and how we deal with death, procreation and life. The mass collection of fake flowers are both funerary and represent the sexual reproduction of natural life. 'The Garden' studies how nature is reproduced into plastic and altered by commercialization."

"I believe that art can drive and shape change in the world, and that artists are 'first responders' to what is happening all around us," Stites concludes. "Artists are essential for envisioning progress, and I want to support their voices and visions."