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Review: Artist Portia Munson Takes on Modern Feminism at PPOW Gallery

Artist Portia Munson's recent solo show at PPOW Gallery takes on feminist aesthetics and if we have ultimately missed something.

“Bound Angel,” environmentalist and feminist artist Portia Munson’s solo exhibition at Tribeca’s PPOW Gallery, asks us to confront the sorry state of modern feminism: stuck under a pile of junk. The three installations, made from a crowd of second-hand items, and 50 paintings and drawings of individual items, composed with solemn respect for all this stuff’s pretty uselessness, are on view until August 19. 

You could get trapped in Munson’s sticky exploration of objectification for much longer. The girls, eyes, and rope that polka dot the exhibit are as disturbing as they are beautiful. Seeing Munson’s items piled in their respective sculptures, you recall the weight of objects in your own house and the American Girl dolls you once discarded. They’re stinking up the atmosphere now, but you once thought they might tell you what a “girl” is meant to be.

Portia Munson’s girls are T.J. Maxx coquettes, a consumerist society’s way of flirting with your desire for self-discovery. The items in the eponymous sculpture Bound Angel, built on a table slathered in discarded wedding dresses like a cookie covered in thin royal icing, seem to both sing to, seduce, and choke each other. Objects like a white woman’s head, a white woman’s hand, and a white porcelain bust of Mary all stand cloistered, blinded, and tied in white rope. These objects, glazed and fired Rococo girls you might have seen once in a broken China cabinet, are presented to you breasts-forward in claustrophobic unity.  

Nightstand, a compact, colorful version of Bound Angel with more cramped pale angels and society women, is punctuated with the same clearance sale eroticism. Skirt hems are outlined in graceful fake gold, or ribbons, and some girls carry crudely sculpted fans and instruments. They’re also tied suggestively, and you’re invited to glimpse the details, romantic and frilly advertisements. On their own, the figurines are a Lana Del Rey song about pussy, Pepsi, and daddies. In the context of Bound Angel, these insistently female-coded items transcend their calculated sexuality and price tag, and instead tell the story of bought-and-sold, docile, feminist individualism.

According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in the essay Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism, “feminist individualism in the age of imperialism, is precisely the making of human beings.” Her essay refers to Jane Eyre, but, with its figurines, “Bound Angel“ indicates that imperialist assertions of what’s sufficiently “feminine” still litter our coffee tables. 

Spivak continues, “this stake is represented on two registers: childbearing and soul making.” Nightstand’s figurines show us that soul making is marketed to us in the peeking details, the held puppies and tiered skirts, which are light acknowledgements of supposedly women-approved interests. These interests, of course, help make women suitable for marriage and childbearing. When we buy these objects, we accept and absorb this message.

It’s a degrading practice, but Munson recognizes its aesthetic appeal. That’s what makes Bound Angel feel so dangerous — the items in it shouldn’t exist, their existence actively harms Earth and our self-image, but they’re still lovely. Dull light bulbs with more bonnet-wearing women at their bases turn Bound Angel’s table top into a glob of melting candles, warm and inviting. However, cleverly, Munson makes her installation so dense that it’s impossible to ignore the clutter. We and the figurines are overwhelmed by this shit. The items themselves want us to identify with the unnatural natural, their sculpted flowers and smooth faces, but Munson requires us to feel the consequences of this indulgence on our real bodies and Earth. To our detriment, feminism and nature are trapped in plastic.

“Why have we turned the cheeseburger into a totemic food, a veritable member of the family, a symbol of the national clan?”, professor Bill Brown asks in his 2001 essay “Thing Theory.” Though not as delicious as a cheeseburger (“Too many calories!,” the Bound Angel figurines say), items like the feather boa, the string of plastic beads, and the smirking, yogurt-pink fairy in Munson’s flamingo-colored sculpture Today Will Be Awesome are group symbols. In buying them and putting them on our shelves, women hope to both represent and define themselves as a unit. The polyester FEMINIST sash, for example, that Munson slings across a headless bust, is an announcement of who the wearer believes themselves to be and how they want to be perceived. This line of thinking takes pleasurably little effort — to be a feminist, all you need to do to proclaim yourself one in hot pink.

“Released from the bond of being equipment, sustained outside the irreversibility of technological history, the object becomes something else,” Brown writes. But although items like the FEMINIST sash are routinely packaged as equipment by Hillary Clinton Etsy shops (“You need me for the revolution!,” the sash says) they’re truly and inevitably just garbage. 

In Munson’s art, their uselessness is emphasized, dramaticized, and eulogized. That poor FEMINIST sash, doomed to live out its days on a headless bust. But Today Will Be Awesome implies the sash imbues its headless bust with the same amount of feminism as it would a human wearer. The item is a symbol, yes, but it’s message is strained and diluted by tag sales and mall dates. What the item symbolizes loses its meaning outside of the provocative and critical glare of “Bound Angel.”

“However we twist and turn it, ” Heidegger writes, “this is how the construction of things shows itself; and around them are space and time, as their frame.” Or as Avril Lavigne sings, “why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?” The second-hand objects in “Bound Angel” floated through time and space aimlessly, ripping open a void in place of womanhood, until they landed in the exhibit. Now that they’re all in front of us, Munson wants the objects to force us to confront the coy monstrosities we build, buy, and discard en masse every day. 

She gives us a closer look at our waste in her still life drawings. A few examples: Bottle Opener depicts a thin woman made to pop beer bottle tops, Saltshaker is a woman’s head made to flavor fries, and Nutcracker shows a pair of metal thighs to break peanuts in. The drawings themselves are understated and committed, a hand writing in soft gray graphite that all these women-objects aren’t unified, they’re the way we sell zombie-brained submission.

The only way to counteract this is to untie the white rope that binds you. You won’t find truth, solidarity, or art in a purchasable item, “Bound Angel” asserts gracefully and viscerally. For feminism and the world to survive, we need to generate conviction, not trash.