“Taste is style, and to know bad taste, of course, you have to have been taught the rules of the tyranny of good taste so you can yearn to break them,” says our preeminent filth elder John Waters. John knows a thing or two about good taste, but then so do we. By we, I mean, women. Women have been taught the tyranny of good taste more than anyone else. Since we were born, our primness, prettiness and politeness have been predetermined, preordained and presumed. But, what if, instead, we decided to embrace bad taste as a form of resistance?
This is what Portia Munson has done in her current solo exhibition The Garden at PPOW Gallery. Best known for her pretty in pink assemblages, a formalist study of girlie garbage, which is represented here as her sepulcher-like The Coffin, Munson’s exhibition spans her work from the 1990s until the present. While her body of work certainly presents a feminist critique of the definition of women by mass-produced artificial gewgaws, she also subversively takes it on as her own kitsch-driven aesthetic, presenting a more complex, multifaceted transgression of taste.
“It’s what’s up front that counts,” reads a tiny tacky plaque in Munson’s Functional Woman, nestled amongst a menagerie of big breasted salt and pepper shakers, baby doll head banks, a spread-eagle clothing hanger, a prissy knit lady toilet roll cover and copious other mass-produced crap. This explosion of kitsch covers a chest of drawers with a deflated blow-up doll nestled in one of the open drawers. With the wideness of the armoire, it looks like a woman-shaped altar to trash. I was ready to approach it on my knees.
Naturally, this work points out the overdetermination of women’s bodies–and its functionality– by throwaway objects (as well as high art). This critique certainly isn’t new–it’s been a tenant of feminist critique from the get-go, but rather than seeing Munson’s Functional Woman as a blanket rejection of these objects, I see it as a subversive embrace of tackiness. Maybe it’s even a celebration of its overblown, exaggerated femininity since the unwavering glee to which Munson displays this overabundance of knickknacks is undeniably palpable.
I’ll preface the rest of my analysis with the admission that this could all be just me. I do have a decidedly tackier aesthetic eye than most. I ran through The Garden trying to stop myself from swiping a tit-covered salt and pepper shaker, which, come on, it would just look so great in my apartment. Would anyone notice? No? Yes? Ok…fine…
So, sure, my love of trash could be overshadowing Munson’s own intent. But, no matter, there’s just something so deliciously perverse about coveting these offensive objects rather than clutching our pearls. If we’re laughing at something meant to demean us, we have the power.
And there lies the strength of Munson’s Functional Woman. It is funny, as well as presents a direct rejection of, as John Waters says, the tyranny of good taste. Waters describes his own films as, “political action against the tyranny of good taste.” John Waters’ films are a direct rejection of his upper middle class upbringing, reveling in the trash of downtown Baltimore. Similarly, Munson rejects feminine “good taste” by showcasing misogynist throwaways, transforming it into a type of monumental ode to tackiness. And like Waters admission, there’s a political strength in taking on this overblown femininity too.
Of course, the most talked about installation in the PPOW Gallery show is Munson’s The Garden, a revisitation of her 1996 installation. It looks like a thrift store threw up in a gallery. With flowered fabric draped all over the walls and ceiling, every single surface in the bedroom is blanketed in Technicolor flea market ephemera. The bed is covered by countless stuffed animals while perfume scents the air and a music box-like soundtrack softly plays in the background. It’s hoarder heaven–a pathological paradise. It looks like if Little Edie Beale scrapped her revolutionary outfits of the day and went full on Middle America Trash.
Aside: On a drive in Indiana with Marion, we once saw a house that had multicolored Beanie Baby bears lining the curtain rods in their front window. It was both sublime and deeply horrifying. That same combination is reflected in Munson’s The Garden. It’s almost impossible to take in all at once.
Nestled in one part of the room, there is a memorial sign covered in faux flowers that reads “MOM.” This object hints at The Garden’s underlying funereal atmosphere. With a rope preventing viewers from stepping inside, The Garden almost feels like a reliquary or a period room at the Met if done by a staffer with a head full of acid.
The Garden harnesses the subversive power of kitsch and its replacement of the natural world with artificial objects. Who needs to look at real flowers when you’ve got a glut of fake ones? In her Aesthetic Order: A Philosophy of Order, Beauty and Art, Ruth Lorand defines kitsch as “a misuse of beauty; it is a parasite of good art and natural beauty; it manipulates beauty for non-aesthetic purposes” (246).
In The Garden, beauty is quite clearly misused. The sheer amount of kitsch is actually oppressive. I couldn’t stay in there for too long after my eyes felt violated. An environmentalist, Munson knows what she’s doing. She’s suffocating you with kitsch to make a point about the utter crap we surround ourselves with.
By using kitsch as critique, Munson mines both our rejection of nature and the popularity of these trash objects. In Aesthetic Order, Ruth Lorand writes, “Kitsch is a form of deception. Seeing it in opposition to beauty suggests that the genuine experience of beauty is sincere, not directed to pre-calculated results beyond the interpretative problem it wishes to solve, and that it is not constituted by well-tested, effective formulae. Yet kitsch is interesting and indeed instructing. It’s understanding can reveal some aspects of human weaknesses and desires, supplying thereby techniques of manipulating the public” (247).
Tomas Kulka in his book Kitsch and Art echoes Lorand’s sentiment (or really, published later, she echoes his). He details, ‘The peculiarity of kitsch consists, no doubt, in its appeal. People like it; at least many do. Commercially, kitsch competes successfully with serious art” (19). He continues, “The question of why so many people like kitsch if it is aesthetically bad is often dismissed as posing no real problem; indeed, it seems to be self-explanatory. The worthlessness of kitsch is assumed to be self-evident, mass appeal is then explained by the alleged fact that most people simply happen to have bad taste, which is demonstrated by their attraction to kitsch” (21).
However, what Kulka misses is, in fact, buried in an idea he rejects. He says, “If anything, it suggests that aesthetic worthlessness has an aesthetic appeal, which sounds somewhat perverse” (21). Yes it does Tom…yes it does.
I’d argue that this worthlessness does have an appeal as seen in Munson’s The Garden. Even though it is fairly horrifying, there is also something empowering about the installation’s sheer magnitude. Beyond The Garden itself, Munson’s paintings hung around the entirety of the exhibition further emphasize the interest and potential power in these kitschy objects. By transforming these throwaway materials into oil on canvas paintings, Munson raises this low art to high art. Ranging from cracked bunny ears from a sculpture sitting on a flowered background, dolls with their skirts raised over their heads, a pink doll wig absent of a head and a butterfly clip sitting under a bell jar, resembling a vagina, these paintings are unrepentantly feminine and girl-like. Beyond that, they’re also, at times, downright disturbing (for instance, the Barbie doll head sitting with pliers in the foreground like a torture scene).
Asked about her paintings in an interview with The Creator’s Project, Munson explains, “In the paintings, what I am trying to do is meditate on a singular object — like a doll, a vase, or perfume bottle — that is “girlish,” “innocent,” and “demeaning,” and through the act of painting, bring forth the real power of the feminized. So in the paintings, these simple subjects become mysterious, activated, and maybe even scary.”
And the paintings are oddly sexual, strangely adorable and sort of alien. For example, a woman torso coffee mug looks garish and gruesome in Munson’s hands while pink dildos are actually adorable.
Rather than just showcasing how problematic these objects are (even though they do that, as well), what Munson importantly achieves is a transgressive celebration of this trash. Take, for example, Swell, which depicts a baseball cap with a large breasted mermaid on it, lying on a 1960’s style flowered fabric. While this could be taken as only a critique, there is something reverent by the centrality and care Munson takes in rendering this object. It places its humor and kitschiness front and center.
By willfully embracing this kitsch, Munson presents a celebration of femininity in all its forms, despite the potentially restrictive power of patriarchal mass-produced trash. Femininity, on some level, is seen as artificial like these objects–it’s made-up, dressed-up and performed. By laying out these performances in terms of mass produced objects, these objects–and Munson’s representations of them–become monuments to exaggerated excessive and campy femininity. While not of our choosing necessarily, that doesn’t mean that, if we embrace them, like Munson for their humor and depravity, we can’t find spaces of freedom within these objects. If we are to be buried in a pink coffin of doll shoes, brushes and ribbons, then maybe we should be laughing our way there.