Stepping through the door of P·P·O·W Art Gallery at 535 W 22nd St. is an immediate “Wow” moment. The walls facing the entrance of the first gallery are covered in wallpaper of dinner-plate size dandelions on a deep black background on which are hung medium-size framed photographic prints. Counter-intuitive as that sounds, it works. This is because the pattern unit of the wallpaper comes from the same source as the artworks hanging on it and those works have a clear and strong enough composition to withstand and complement the wallpaper design, or vice versa. Portia Munson is a Catskill-based artist who came to prominence with her artwork The Pink Project in which she created an installation of hundreds of pieces of pink, mostly plastic, paraphernalia — the detritus of commercialized femininity. Over the years, she made other installations from collections of trash including a multi-colored Garden and an all-green Lawn. Her art practice is built around her interest in collecting, be it the discarded excesses of modern life, flowers from her garden, or bones and small animal corpses from the woods and lands adjacent to her Catskill Mountain home – she lives near a hunting club and the inevitable plethora of animal remains has found its way into areas of her work as memento mori. This show, entitled “Reflecting Pool” exhibits all of these aspects of the artist’s passion for collecting.
Munson is an avid gardener and the fruit of that labor becomes material for her works, elaborate mandala-like compositions made from all parts of plants: roots, leaves, seed-pods, blossoms – whatever is in season at the time the work is made dictates a good deal of the outcome. Mandalas are interesting art forms, they can be religious or political and they exist to be meditated, or reflected, on. Munson’s compositions, although preserved through the magic of digital technology, are as ephemeral as sand paintings. The component parts are arranged on a scanner so the artworks are made through a kind of direct photographic method; this allows for multiple prints although those in this exhibition are limited to editions of five or less.
P·P·O·W’s gallery comprises three spaces. In the first, that of the dandelion wallpaper, the artworks — still life prints — combine memento mori with plant parts. They mostly consist of birds laid out in circles or ovals of blossoms, returned to symbolic nests, creating a sense that funerary rituals have taken place. In the case of Golden Crowned Kinglet the corpse of the eponymous bird is surrounded by a “golden crown” of blossoms made up primarily of Black-eyed Susans; petals from a red Dahlia rain down around the body like drops or tears of blood. Similarly in the piece, Common Grackle, the dark bird, who almost disappears into the black background, is placed amidst an array of snow-drops that creates the effect of tears. The titular subject of Witch Hazel Screech Owl has an uncannily human quality in the way it rests amidst an oval of roots, witch hazel blossoms and tulips. The center piece of this room, indeed the piece de resistance, is Fox Maze—it consists of a perfect specimen of a red fox in a maze of blue blossoms — hydrangeas I think. It puts one in mind of the fox who must be wily to dodge the hunt, outwit the dogs, and “go to ground.” The title perhaps also puns on “out-foxing the [corn] maze,” something this little fox didn’t. The overall effect of these pieces is one of reverence for the deceased creature.
Hung in the second gallery space are three green compositions that have such a strange and ethereal quality that I think they might be my favorite of Munson’s works that I have seen so far. Two of the three are formal compositions typical of her work in this area while the third, Verdant Aftermath, is denser, looser, more abstract, creating the effect of undergrowth. This isn’t a new departure; Verdant Aftermath was made in 2011 and is one of the earlier works on show.
The title piece, Reflecting Pool, occupies the third room in the gallery. It is a large above-ground swimming pool — truncated — full of random objects, mostly plastic, in various shades of blue. The objects are grouped according to their particular blue. A reflecting pool is a shallow body of water, undisturbed by fountains, usually found in parks and at memorial sites such as, most famously, the pool in front of the Taj Mahal in India. This title is a nice play on that idea, and it is indeed a “reflecting” pool; it reflects back at the viewer a fraction of the humongous amount of crap we, as a species, generate. Nevertheless I found myself drawn towards the pool to identify, and reflect on, the contents, to consider the tones and textures, and maybe to worry over the purity of the color being disturbed, or contaminated, by some accidental non-blue item.
“Reflecting Pool” continues through May 4, 2013 at P·P·O·W Art Gallery, 535 W 22nd St., New York, NY 10011 – (212) 647‑1044
Featured image, Thistle 2013, pigmented ink on rag paper, 60 x 86 inches.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company —as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. In June 2013 she will direct her first production for the company: Rex & Rex by Carey Harrison. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication.Claire Lambe Art Journal