by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Oct 02, 2022
The overproduction and mass consumption are the two sides of the same coin, namely – capitalism. As consumer culture flourished far and wide, it foreclosed the possibility of scaling the declining health of the environment and rising affirmative gender roles. Irrevocably, in the current times, the human tribe faces irreversible ecological trouble and gender bias. The long visual art practice of the New York-based multimedia artist Portia Munson, at the intersection of sculptural installation, photography, painting and sculpture, raises pressing concerns around nature and feminism. The excruciating exercise of accumulating the objects – castoffs from yard sales and thrift shops, trash from along roadsides and streams, give-away piles, and landfills – take the form of unflinchingly maximalist art installations. The American artist categorises and assembles thousands of these found mass-produced objects, and organises them into densely layered pieces that emphasise the colour of the object and intended function.
In the recent solo exhibition Bound Angel by the installation artist at P·P·O·W, New York, the works at display are a more enabled investigation of environment and gender roles.  Drawing from the crucial project Pink Project Table, showcased at the path-breaking exhibition Bad Girls by Marcia Tucker, the sculptural installation Bound Angel has objects including female angels, figurines of small girls, the Virgin Mary, classical and pornographic nudes, snow globes, candle holders, nightlights, lamps, soap dispensers, amongst others. These are laid on the large oval dining table covered in a tablecloth made out of the wedding dresses. The shape of the sculpture as the faceless bride invites the viewers to look at the objects that are tied as if “stifling and entangling” each other.
The violence played out at the table differs from the neat presentation of the objects in the market aimed to cajole the buyers to invest in them. It is as if, both the representations of domestication play with the emotive minds of the consumer. The new series Serving Trays, populated with the ceramic and glass figurines caught by a string on the vintage silver platters, in the exhibition nestled the large scale installation, Bound Angel. The exploitative consumption, be it of products or aggressive assumptions of womanhood, pave the way for destruction.
Another large-scale sculpture, Today Will Be Awesome, by the multidisciplinary artist, in the shape of a female form, has the top half of a headless pink mannequin, arms folded to the hip in – exuding authoritative demeanour – and wears pink elbow pads, back-pack, a large ribbon with the words FEMINIST printed on it, and a pink plastic pearl necklace. The pink objects such as dolls, beauty products, fake hair, fake flowers, dresses, bras, tiaras, evening gloves, jewellery, and awards – to lure the young women – are displayed in the shape of the large hoop skirt. At her base is a sign that reads Today Will be Awesome. In front of the sign, a curled-up figurine lies on its side, her hands pressing against her pelvis hinting at the fetal position. On one hand, the individual objects in Today Will Be Awesome are created to inculcate confidence and success in young women, on the other hand, the thick accumulation of them in the immersive installation opens a hard reality of suffocation and violence. The victimisation of the woman when regularly expected to appear confident enforces them to fall prey to the vicious circle of buying and consuming.
In an interview with STIR, Munson talks about the twin concerns – gender inequality and ecological imbalance – addressed in her art installations, “My work comes out of my everyday experiences, focusing on the clash between our material culture and the “natural” world. Two sculptures Today Will Be Awesome and Bound Angel are large accumulations of found used objects. I see this work as a commentary on femininity, women-centric marketing, and female consumption, but also as a commentary on the environment. I believe that the continued pollution and destruction of our environment is the most pressing and dire issue of our time, and for me, it is inseparably linked to feminism. I see a lack of respect for the environment, the very place we live, as parallel to our civic discord and disregard for women and other undervalued groups.”
The still-life meditations on individual objects found within Munson’s installations in the form of paintings and drawings from the Functional Women series assert Munson’s fascination with objects. The wide spectrum of the subject of these works – be spread legs, nutcracker, ashtray, bare-breasted mug, female torso perfume bottle, naked bottle opener, and lewd salt and pepper shakers – once more open the window to the women’s way of life. “Painting and drawing depict objects culled from my installations, focusing on a singular object and allowing its implied meanings to resonate. Working in different mediums at the same time directly informs all my work and helps me refine and crystallise ideas,” mentions Munson. The exhibition is a visual translation of Munson’s desire to display and document the living archive of the everyday life of women.
“Our modern cultures produce so much stuff, we define ourselves and express our values through the commodities we surround ourselves with. I hope my work helps people recognise that there are embedded meaning(s) in this stuff and that it helps tune us into a deeper way of seeing,” concludes Munson.
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Dilpreet Bhullar
Dilpreet is a writer-researcher based in New Delhi. She is the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability Fellow, Columbia University, New York. She has been co-editor of the books Third Eye: Photography and Ways of Seeing and Voices and Images. Her essays on visual sociology and identity politics are frequently published in leading books, journals and magazines. She is the associate editor of a theme-based journal dedicated to visual arts, published by India Habitat Centre.
Dilpreet is a writer-researcher based in New Delhi. She is the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability Fellow, Columbia University, New York. She has been co-editor of the books Third Eye: Photography and Ways of Seeing and Voices and Images. Her essays on visual sociology and identity politics are frequently published in leading books, journals and magazines. She is the associate editor of a theme-based journal dedicated to visual arts, published by India Habitat Centre.
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