While the early morning of this un-historic summer day was filled with white fog, the afternoon is embracing the lushness of the green, flickering countryside, the grey rural roads, and me, a slow country road driver on my way to Portia Munson’s studio, in the magic of the golden light.
It’s June 24, 2022, and I say it is an un-historic day because what else could it be, when three supreme court judges, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, argue in their 66-page dissent:
The lone rationale for what the majority does today is that the right to elect an abortion is not “deeply rooted in history”: Not until Roe, the majority argues, did people think abortion fell within the Constitution’s guarantee of liberty. (Ante, at 32.) The same could be said, though, of most of the rights the majority claims it is not tampering with. The majority could write just as long an opinion showing, for example, that until the mid-20th century, “there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain [contraceptives].” (Ante, at 15.) So one of two things must be true. Either the majority does not really believe in its own reasoning. Or if it does, all rights that have no history stretching back to the mid 19th century are insecure. Either the mass of the majority’s opinion is hypocrisy, or additional constitutional rights are under threat. It is one or the other.
Portia Munson, an artist who describes herself as a feminist and environmentalist, stands in front of her studio, an 18th century barn. Its exterior has weathered under snow, sunshine, pollen, pollution, rain, and hail, and it has turned into all shades of gray. Portia greets me with a broom in her hand and on the occasion of this un-historic day, she wears jeans and a black T-shirt that says in glittering letters, “Abortion is normal.” As I follow her up the stairs to her studio, I imagine the physical – never mind the mental – energy it must take to open three solo exhibitions in one month: Memento Mori at Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson, NY, Flood at Art Omi in Ghent, NY, and Bound Angel at P.P.O.W. in NYC.
The first things I see when we step into her studio are three potent colors. Green emanates from the dense tree foliage outside the big windows. Pink radiates from “Today will be AWESOME,” a staggering assemblage of cheap, mass produced consumer objects on a cabinet that looks like a shrine. And then there is a glowing yellow, which comes from “Bound Angel,” an enormous oval-shaped tabletop. It is densely covered with hundreds of porcelain female figurines, which Portia has collected in thrift stores and at yard sales, then individually bound up tightly with all kinds of white strings.
Standing in front of this installation triggers shock and relief on the day the supreme court has delivered the curtailment of women’s rights and their status as free and equal citizens. Shock because the sheer number of figurines makes tangible the individuals who will be suffering from this decision. And relief because I sense that if I needed to, I could cry now. The bound kneeling angels, the bound dancing nudes, the bound praying princesses, the bound virgins, the bound nymphs, the bound ballerinas and the bound brides, the bound nuns and bound nurses, the bound whores, the bound teenage girls, the bound classic roman busts, the bound pondering-pose ladies and the bound big-boobs-breast beauties all tied up and shoved together on what could be a big ship on a maiden voyage or an excessive, baroque banquet table – they would understand.
Feeling recognized sinks in with gratitude, yet walking slowly around “Bound Angel” also makes me see that this is made; that this a coded, cultural construct that carries pleasure and beauty in its perversity, and that it is conflicting – because human-made messages are often conflicting – and that it is powerful because it is so many of them. The passive, little, instructional, functional objects that may seem a bit odd or funny – but generally harmless when they stand in the cluttered corner of someone’s kitchen counter or on a window sill between travel trinkets – actually add up. Like every little insult that can be laughed about and shrugged off one at a time, these things don’t just evaporate, but accumulate and grow, sometimes into monstrous forms that do not stop spreading, even when physical boundaries like the edge of a tabletop are reached. “Bound Angel” is surrounded by eight smaller satellite versions presented on metal serving trays, which stand on pedestals at P.P. O.W. Gallery in NYC. Serving what? Serving whom?
As I am talking with Portia and looking around in her studio, all this writes itself very fast and detailed in my head, until this text’s upcoming word limit urges me to leave this land of figurines and find a bridge to the flower collages. These have first drawn me to Portia’s work, yet suddenly I can’t move on, it seems, before I understand the phrase “body of work” that is often used to describe a cohesion of pieces that share consistent elements.
What is a “body of work” and whose body is it, how is it handled, and why do we use it when talking about artistic output? What about oeuvre, French for work, or corpus, Latin for body, the body of a person or an animal, especially when dead? This brings us to Memento Mori, Portia’s exhibition at Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson, NY. The show is currently installed in a 19th century townhouse’s horse stable – a coincidence Portia finds meaningful, as it connects the former lives of working animals like horses with the dead birds she honors – mostly killed in car accidents and picked up by the side of the road.
Portia’s studio and the farmhouse where she lives with her family are surrounded by free-flowing gardens. Portia grows the flowers here that she uses to pay homage to killed birds. On the day she finds them, she arranges them together with flower heads in geometric patterns, mandalas, and spirals on a large flatbed scanner. When the digital files are being printed, the scale of the bird memorials is always 1:1, while the still-lifes that consist only of flower heads and petals are sometimes enlarged up to ten times from their original size, visually transforming the utter fragility of blue morning glory trumpets into a vivid patchwork.
Until recently, I never found it strange to kill flowers to put them in a vase. Even if I rationalize now what I do to the flowers and their potential seeds and offsprings, it still gives me shameless pleasure to arrange them on my kitchen table. Yet I can’t pick up a dead bird. I don’t know how; I am afraid of the weight. Where would I put it and how? And what happens after you have scanned the birds, I ask Portia, whose intuitive and inventive ways to recycle and repurpose things I have found inspiring and instructional since I first met her in 2005. After she has scanned the birds, she puts them into her freezer and then donates them either to a local ornithologist or other artists who use them as part of their creative process.
Portia’s still-life collages celebrate life and the fleetingness of beauty embedded within the natural cycles of things being born, living, decaying, dying and taking on another form. Her collages also very specifically document – almost scientifically detached in their aestheticized fragmentation – the fact that the life of a bluebird, a wood thrush, or a sharp-shinned hawk was violently ended by a human driving a car on the same day daffodils, violets, bleeding hearts, or lilacs were blooming in her garden.
The walls of Portia’s show called Flood in the Newmark Gallery at Art Omi are dotted with small paintings she has produced throughout the last 30 years. One of them features an isolated flower vase that looks like a young, shy woman who wears a big, cut-open hat. The artist has painted the subject from above so that the opening of the flower vase stares at us as a mad, empty hole, reminding me of all the brains and mountains, oceans and forests we have hollowed out. How dare we?
Memento Mori at Pamela Salisbury Gallery runs through July 24, 2022; Bound Angel runs at P.P.O.W. through August 19; and Flood at Art Omi is on view through September 25. You can find more information about the artist on her website.