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This New Museum of Sex Exhibit Is a Garish Display of Female Marketing

Walk up a couple flights of stairs in Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, then head towards the back of an exhibition hall. There, you’ll be treated to a disorienting pink nightmare. Above, pink onesies, pink pjs, pink coats and a potpourri of tied-together pink garments form a makeshift ceiling. Pink shelving populated by pink figurines, pink dolls and pink toys serve as walls that encroach frightfully. There’s a bed with pink comforters and pink pillowcases underneath a pink canopy, and a window lined with pink curtains is stuffed to the top with pink stuffed animals. On the pink nightstand? A couple of pink phones. A pink egg sits in a pink easy chair and pink hangars criss cross in a pink bin. There’s pink model cars, pink bras, pink sex toys, pink bottles of fabric softener, pink umbrellas, pink satin gloves, pink winter gloves, pink lampshades, pink purses and pink yoga balls. And all that pink’s just the pink tip of a proverbial pink iceberg.

The contractor behind The Pink Bedroom installation is visual artist Portia Munson, who’s intentionally collected pink items from family, friends, neighbors, trash receptacles, sidewalks and streets since 1994. Like many girls, she owned a number of pink-colored products in her youth, but while attending college at The Cooper Union School of Art, she began to think more critically about why. “What is it about this color that defines me?” she asked herself. “Why am I being associated with this color?”

Munson started painting still lifes of the items to highlight ways in which females are marketed to in consumerist culture. One day, she noticed the collection of pink ephemera had grown quite large in her studio, and a revelation hit her hard: that was an art piece in and of itself. 

The first iteration was for a 1994 show in New York City, Bad Girls, curated by Marcia Tucker, where Munson displayed all the pink items she’d collected up to that point across a large table. Wearing a pink bedazzled cap, she tells me over Zoom, “I always loved the color pink, but when I put [the items] all together, I felt two things: that it’s degrading and that it’s kind of a little horrifying to realize that.”

In a maximalist context like The Pink Bedroom, that sense of degradation is overwhelming. Munson’s also generated an installation, most recently shown at Omi Arts Center in the Hudson Valley, that she calls Flood, which operates as a yang to The Pink Bedroom’s yin. Flood is a blue above-ground pool filled with blue-colored items like measuring spoons, sunglasses, piggy banks, toy cars, you name it. She says that the types of things manufacturers make in blue are not only associated with “boy” or “male,” but also “water,” “clean” (i.e., pool cleaning supplies, like those in Flood) and “purity” (like recycling bins and bags). While in Munson’s mind pink has historically represented female “passivity” and “communicated weakness,” she believes the vast collection in The Pink Bedroom reimagines the color’s potential. Not unlike when millions of protestors took to the streets six years ago in pink pussyhats, furious about the institutional misogyny that helped propel someone like Donald Trump to the White House, Munson believes her installation gives the color a new strength and power.

“The Pink Bedroom confronts viewers with a plethora of pink objects that have been long associated with women, their bodies and notions of femininity,” says Emily Shoyer, curator at large for Museum of Sex. “By viewing these objects together in the context of the museum, we hope that visitors will reflect on their own relationship to the color and what these objects tell us about how society shapes our perceptions and expectations of what it means to be a woman.” 

After being engulfed in it myself at the Museum of Sex, I interpreted a message about the relentless pressure women face to conform to a traditional definition of femininity. The prospect of living under such conditions saddened me and, later, I felt even worse when I considered how uncomfortable trans people might feel in this culture, with the binary pushed so forcefully upon them.

Discussing those themes with Munson, she says she likes the work to speak for itself. Still, she offers: “What’s striking to me is how as a woman you are bombarded with that kind of stuff and how it can be insulting or infantilizing of women. It’s something that’s being taught or instilled through these commodities, throughout a lifetime.” 

She agrees that “addressing the variations of genders that are out there” is “an important conversation,” but couldn’t say she intended for the piece to necessarily go there. However, having this installation in what she calls a “mainstream” space — one that doesn’t solely attract high-minded art gallery types — so many years after she began the project has opened up avenues for new discussions about the work, which she says excites her. 

On gallery walls adjacent to The Pink Bedroom is a collection of Munson’s paintings and graphite drawings. Some portray goods in the shape of women, like a Victorian-era female whose dress resembles a pin cushion. Munson says the series calls attention to the ways women are, again, “degraded” through the expectation that they’re around to strictly serve a particular function. There are also watercolor gouaches of more pink-colored items — purses, underwear, mouth gags — that are, Munson says, “empty of body but representing a body,” as if to suggest that women are valued to an outsized degree by their figures. 

Munson observes that for every item in The Pink Bedroom, there are thousands, maybe millions, more in the world just like them. So there’s an anti-consumerism element and an environmental one to her work — both in The Pink Bedroom and Flood. She’s underscoring the strain that people put on the planet through mass production and easily discarding so much of what we make and buy. 

“I hope that everybody who sees it finds something that they connect with,” Munson says of The Pink Bedroom exhibition. “You recognize this is the culture that we live in from your own life experience.”

The Pink Bedroom will be on display at Museum of Sex through July 26, 2023.