This morning I went to Montserrat College of Art to hear Portia Munson talk about her work. Her installation, Green Lawn, is part of a large group show at the college’s Hardie Gallery called Cornucopia: Documenting the Land of Plenty, a look at the consequences of unbridled consumerism.
I first saw Munson’s work at the Yoshii Gallery in New York City the mid-90s. Everything in the show was pink: vitrines and mounds of pink objects relating to the female experience: combs, curlers, dolls, vibrators, compacts, handbags, soap, gloves, you name it. We’ve all been aware of—and, often, been victims of—pink-is-for-girls thinking, but it was shocking to see the tangible, kitschy, crappy way in which we’ve been so objectified. Let me clarify: the stuff was crappy, but the installation was superb.
Since then I’ve seen her work in other shows in New York, most recently at P.P.O.W. last year, where she showed Green Lawn. It’s the same piece she shows at Montserrat. During her talk today, she explained that while the objects in a particular work remain the same, each installation is different. "I approach my work as a painter, a colorist," she says. In Green Lawn, for instance, there are flashes of orange, red, aqua and yellow that punctuate that verdant field of stuff. And those greens—from lawn chairs, watering cans, hoses, the stuff of suburban backyard living—are all different as well, laid out in a monochromatic spectrum. It’s a dimensional painting, a Canal Street of objects. Or is it Love Canal of detritis? Visually shocking in the ugliness of the objects (she gets her stuff at thrift shops and dumps), it’s also undeniably beautiful as an assembled mass. You want to wade into it. Thinking better of it, you just dive in visually from the periphery.
I would have guessed Munson lived smack in the middle of Urban Consumerland, but no, she lives north of New York City along the Hudson. Her home—she showed pictures—is an old farmhouse, and her studio is a barn behind the house. She lives with her husband and their two kids, and grows vegetables and flowers.
Portia Munson at the opening of Corucopia at Montserrat College of Art, standing before her installation
In her talk, Munson also showed newer work, Flower Mandalas, in which her tendency to amass takes on a new direction: compositions in which actual blossoms, petals, buds and stems are the object and subject of her organization. If you visit her website, you can see them.
Cornucopia: Documenting the Land of Plenty was curated by Leonie Bradbury, director of the Galleries at Montserrat. Here's part of her statement about the show:
"People are increasingly identified through their consumption: what you buy is who you are. This exhibit provides a visually stimulating portrait of contemporary America's obsession with acquiring consumer goods and some of the environmental and psychological consequences. It features large-scale photographic works by Xing Danwen, Chris Jordan, Brian Ulrich, JeongMee Yoon and a sculptural installation by Portia Munson. Visually exploring the vast and the minute, each artist investigates the impact of the large amounts of "stuff" that we accumulate. Equally alluring in terms of their beauty and repulsiveness, the artwork causes viewers to pause and reconsider their role in the seemingly never-ending cycle of consuming, accumulating and discarding."
If you’re in the Boston area, make a point of seeing this show. It's up through February 2, 2008.
P.S. And a special thanks to Shana Dumont, the gallery's assistant director, for inviting me to lunch with her and Portia.