New York

Portia Munson

P. P. O. W.

Portia Munson remains best known for Pink Project Table, 1994–96, an installation that appeared in the controversially titled “Bad Girls,” a 1994 exhibition of feminist art curated by the late Marcia Tucker at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and Marcia Tanner at UCLA’s Wight Gallery. Munson’s work, which greeted visitors at the entrance to the New Museum’s portion of the show, took the shape of a table crammed with found objects, most of them plastic, all of them pink: hairbrushes, mirrors, curlers, wigs, toys, toilet brushes, ice cube trays, dolls, and other domestic items, the composition looking like a collection of evidence or a meth addict’s late-night project.

But from the looks of her recent show, Munson is now neither a “bad girl” nor particularly interested in gender politics. Instead, she seems to have crossed over to a more docile domesticity, embracing emblems that are more often associated with Martha Stewart than with radical feminist politics. The gallery was lined with photographs of flowers (grown in her own garden) arranged into artful mandalas. These works, reminiscent of simpler, less psychedelic versions of Fred Tomaselli paintings, have benign-sounding titles like Cut Daffodils, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Rose Bed (all 2006). They were joined here by diminutive still-life paintings, including Mermaid Dish with Potatoes, 2005, and Broken Goblets, 2006.

The centerpiece of the exhibition wasn’t two-dimensional, however, but borrowed heavily from strategies first employed by Munson in Pink Project Table. Lawn, 2007, was an almost room-size installation of grass-green plastic found objects, some placed on a large, rectangular bed of Astroturf. Broken lawn furniture, toys, watering cans, wreaths, laundry baskets—even a mint-green bag from the Whitney Museum of American Art’s gift shop—were assembled in cascading heaps that mimicked a landfill. Environmentalism, disposable culture, and the complicated semantics of the word green—it’s not just a noun, but a verb, too—were obvious allusions. Among the plastic junk was also a large collection of toy dinosaurs that felt like a portent; at the present rate we will be following them into extinction after using up the last of their remains, in the form of fossil fuel.

Yet, if Pink Project Table had viewers studying the arrangement for clues to the secrets of our culture, Lawn felt significantly slighter. There’s no reason, of course, why Munson shouldn’t reemploy the formal vocabulary of her best-known work. But if Lawn is less satisfying, it’s probably because Munson’s accretion and careful arrangement of pink objects highlighted not only the arbitrariness of “feminine” signifiers (pink, after all, was considered a masculine color until the last century), but actually re-created the manic energy expended by women desperate to conform to narrowly defined, often equally arbitrary stereotypes of beauty and femininity.

Lawn takes a more obvious tack: We are a culture devoted to consumerism and planned obsolescence that has, paradoxically, become enamored with the idea of a “greener” planet. The evidence of our crimes is everywhere; the world is awash in nonbiodegradable plastic. But the psychic glue of Pink Project Table is missing here. Lawn feels lackluster and oddly dated, offering a view into how even colors suffer at the whims of culture, fashion, and history.

Martha Schwendener