Portia Munson

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Fox Maze and Freeda wearing Fox Maze scarf.
Fox Maze

Reflecting Pool    Portia Munson
Apr 5-May 4, 2013


535 West 22nd Street, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10011

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Tuesday through Saturday 10am - 6pm

P•P•O•W is pleased to present Portia Munson's fourth exhibition at the gallery entitled Reflecting Pool. Munson continues to employ photography, sculpture and installation to form interconnected works that examine the relationship of the natural to the artificial. Munson's work is a record of this moment in time as she observes the changes to her local environment and the impact that cars, roads and buildings have on natural places and wildlife.

Upon entering the gallery the viewer is immediately immersed in Munson's world by a series of still life memento mori hanging on photographic wallpaper of oversized dandelions. Munson creates these images by scanning flowers and creatures from her garden and surrounding woods and roadsides. Formally inspired by the structure of the flowers, Munson slices into buds, pulls blossoms apart and layers them onto one another, creating mandala-like compositions that in eastern religions represent the universe. These images conjure the ephemeral nature of the botanical along with its innate utopian beauty.

While moving through the gallery one comes upon an above-ground pool containing thousands of found plastic objects in all shades of blue. This is Munson's latest installation, Reflecting Pool, which literally presents a flood of plastic. Each piece represents the millions of discarded multiples that have been rapidly accumulating and polluting our world. The color blue ironically represents clean clear water, sky and air, yet in reality these objects are trash the artist collected from roadsides, streams and landfills. Reflecting Pool, as in Munson's earlier installations, Pink Project, The Garden and Lawn, is a meditation on how mass consumption defines society and its effects; a reminder of how rapidly plastic objects are produced, consumed and discarded to then spend the majority of their synthetic existence as waste, leaving nature to wage the long-fought battle of decomposition in landfills and ocean gyres.

Portia Munson was born in Beverly, MA in 1961 and currently lives and works in Catskill, NY. She holds a BFA from Cooper Union and a MFA from Rutgers University. She has also studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally in such venues as The New Museum, New York, NY; MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA; The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA and The Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland. Her work has been reviewed and written about in many publications including The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, Art in America, Newsweek, USA Today, The New Yorker, Flash Art and Artforum. Munson has recently completed a MTA, Arts for Transit Public Art installation at the Fort Hamilton Parkway Station in Brooklyn, NY. In April, P.P.O.W will be showing a selection of Munson's work at the AIPAD photography fair in New York City. A limited edition silk scarf will be produced in conjunction with this exhibition.

PPOW main gallery framed prints on Dandelion wallpaper.

Reflecting Pool
Reflecting Pool.

Reflecting Pool Reviews:

Goings On About Town: Art

Portia Munson

Best known for her obsessive accumulations of household plastics in the same hue (a kiddie pool overflowing with blue items fills one room here), Munson also makes photographs of floral stilllifes using her studio scanner and materials found in her garden upstate. Flowers, bulbs, and petals form radiating patterns around animal specimens (a bat, an owl, a fox), in works that recall both Victorian memorials and Indian mandalas. Munson's work is sweetly unpretentious and has a seductive luminosity; each floral element appears to emit light, like a homespun Tiffany lampshade.

Roll Magazine
The L Magazine
Affair of The Poisons

Ms. Munson covered a bathroom's walls with birch bark because, she said, "I was broke and I hated the tiles." (When the birch trees die in her woods, the bark peels off in huge, curly sheets.)
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The photo at center is of Freeda Handelsman, 13, in the kitchen.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Ms. Munson painted all the trim in this room in a a bright green faux wood pattern. The big blue tiles on the chimney were gifts from Ann Agee, a ceramic artist who was in the New Museum's "Bad Girls Show" with Ms. Munson in the early 1990s. The smaller tiles are from Mexico.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Ms. Munson's flower mandalas are records of a single day in the garden. Unfortunately, Ms. Munson has hay fever; she really suffers for her art.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Mr. Handelsman built this treehouse for his children, Zur, now 18, and Freeda, 13. When they grew out of it, he turned it into a giant camera obscura.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

In the beginning, Mr. Handelsman planted new bushes in 10 varieties. When he was halfway along, he began to use cuttings from the existing plants, finding the result stronger and hardier. Now, there are 200 bushes.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The birdhouses were gifts from friends. Mr. Handelsman and Ms. Munson are happy with the way one is leaning.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The wood-burning stove at the back of the kitchen heats the house and cooks the meals. Ms. Munson made the wallpaper from photographs of the woods outside.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

On a tramp-art side table, a shell lamp made by Mr. Handelsman's great-grandfather.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

In Freeda's room, a flower mandala.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Freeda's room is as vibrant as the rest of her house.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Ms. Munson painted the stairwell; the pendant lamp is from India.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Pink stuff in a vitrine, and blue in a tub. The latter is material Ms. Munson is itching to have her way with soon.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

New York Times September 19, 2012

Their Own Museum

Portia Munson and Jared Handelsman make art from their land, on their land and about their land, including a stupendous blueberry maze. The 300-year-old farmhouse has been in Portia Munson's family since the 1930s, when her great-grandparents moved to Heart's Content Road from Brooklyn, N.Y. Her father and uncle used it as a hunting lodge, filling it with cots. She and Mr. Handelsman moved in 20 years ago, when it was still serviced by a hand-operated water pump.
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times


CATSKILL, N.Y. IT is a sign of Jared Handelsman and Portia Munson's commitment to their art that he has had Lyme disease three times and she has had it twice. It is also a sign of how committed they are to their homestead, 83 acres of woodland and gardens here that include a stupendous blueberry maze. (Think "Spiral Jetty," but in blueberries.) On Heart'sContent Road, it can be hard to tell where the art ends and the homestead begins.

The artists Portia Munson and Jared Handelsman embellished their 300-year-old farmhouse with a fierce mandate: horror vacui. Ms. Munson makes flower mandalas by gathering flowers, leaves, bugs, even dead animals whatever she finds in the garden on a given day and arranging them on a photo scanner. On the wall at left is one of her mandalas. They bought the wheelchair at an estate sale. It came in handy when Mr. Handelsman shattered his ankle when he was blown off the barn he was building. There are over 50 hangers above it, used to dry clothes during the winter months (the house is heated by a wood-burning stove). Ms. Munson and Mr. Handelsman have a dryer but they never use it, for environmental reasons.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Was that Mr. Handelsman's work in the woods, those snarls of brush against the tree trunks? Nope. They were left by the river last summer, after it flooded during Hurricane Irene. But if you looked toward the hill near the graveyard, you might see a boulder as big as a baby elephant, strung up with a steel cable and tethered to an oak tree. Mr. Handelsman, whose early site-specific installations also recall Robert Smithson, is now devoted to photograms, using light-sensitive paper to capture the play of headlights on leaves.

He is a man who really throws himself into his work. He'll crouch in the underbrush close to the road and wait for cars to round the bend, then hold the paper aloft to snare the light, like a campaign worker with a placard. (It's a practice that has made him a magnet for ticks, among other wild things. On many a dark night, he has found himself ringed by coyotes howling to their comrades farther afield.) Ms. Munson has been amassing pink and then green plastic objects (things like dolls, hair curlers and egg cartons), strewing them on tables or stuffing them into vitrines, since her inclusion in the New Museum's "Bad Girls" show in the early 1990s.

Lately, however, she has moved into blue plastic. Abutting an epically proportioned wood pile (stacked in a spiral, thanks to her husband) is a Windex-blue above-ground pool that will be the container for her next installation. Despite the heat, Ms. Munson's family gave the pool a wide berth all summer, disdaining it as an eyesore — her son, Zur, 18, suggested she drag it closer to the road and accessorize it with an old fridge or a broken-down sofa — but Ms. Munson has enjoyed floating in it while pondering the elements of her next piece. In the 21st century, she avers, plastic is just part of the nature that surrounds us.

She does work with plant life as well, though. This month, six of her ravishing flower mandalas — which she makes by gathering blossoms, bugs, even dead animals, whatever she finds in the garden on a single day, and arranging them in kaleidoscope patterns on a photo scanner — became a glowing windscreen at the Fort Hamilton Parkway Station on the D line in Brooklyn, part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's public art program. Made from pink hibiscus petals and squash blossoms, they look like trippy stained-glass windows.

This week, Mr. Handelsman is playing in New York City, too: His moody photograms are at the Fordham University Center Gallery at Lincoln Center, in a group show called "Rockslide Sky," which opened Wednesday.

The hub of all this activity is a compact 18th-century farmhouse that has been in Ms. Munson's family since the 1930s. Over the last two decades, it has been heartily embellished by Ms. Munson and Mr. Handelsman, both now 51, seemingly with a fierce mandate: horror vacui.

One bathroom is stapled with curling birch bark, Ms. Munson's solution, she said, "to being really broke and hating the tile." In the living room, the walls are papered with stencils of flowers that Ms. Munson made and then appliquéd with hundreds of giant pink pansies she had scanned from greeting cards and printed, like William Morris on a serious acid bender. And an armchair wears bright blue fake fur, like Cookie Monster. (The other day, Ms. Munson said: "A few years ago, I cleaned in here. I took a lot of stuff out. I wish I hadn't. Now it's really spare.")

Ms. Munson made wallpaper from stencils of large pink flowers, and then appliqued it with cut-out photographs of huge pink pansies she had scanned from greeting cards and enlarged. In a corner, a vitrine of pink objects, one of Ms. Munson'sf early pink installations.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Lunch on a recent Tuesday was similarly eye-popping, with red bud and lilac bushes tapping the glass on one side of a windowed porch, and woodland wallpaper, made from photographs of the trees by the river, on the walls. On the table, there was a whorl of salad greens and nasturtiums, zinnias in a blue bottle and yellow tomatoes in a yellow colander. Bunches of garlic hung overhead, delicate papery chandeliers.

"We are circumstantial vegetarians," Mr. Handelsman said, explaining how they grow some, but not all, of their food and raise chickens for their eggs. He described a network of bartering among neighbors: their blueberries and maple syrup for someone else's goat cheese or honey; Ms. Munson's artwork for help in the garden. There are an awful lot of gardens here, green "rooms" that unfold into more green rooms, circled with cedar branch fences, arbors and porticos made by Mr. Handelsman, canopied with grape vines and the branches of fruit trees. There is a bathtub in one, a shower in another. Even with the bartering, Ms. Munson said, "not everything gets done."

SHE and Mr. Handelsman moved here 20 years ago, when the place was an uninsulated hunter's lodge (a dorm, really, for her uncle and father and their friends) filled with beds and not much else, and serviced by a hand-operated water pump. Her great-grandparents bought the farmhouse during the Depression, moving here from Brooklyn in an early expression of the back-to-the-land movement. Their children did not stay, migrating back to cities and suburbs. "When we moved here, we just started making our life up," Ms. Munson said. "It was exciting: it was like making art. We came from middle-class families in suburbs, not a nature background, so we were finding our life here and our art, and sort of merging the two." At the time, both were in the M.F.A. program at Rutgers. Mr. Handelsman remembers working on his thesis while tending the open-air sugar-shack fire of an elderly neighbor, from whom he learned the craft of maple sugaring.

They were quick studies. Mr. Handelsman cleared the woods, splitting the trees he cut into logs and stacking them in spirals. Then, as now, they cooked their food and heated the house with a wood-burning stove.

He worked as a stone mason and landscaper in neighbors' gardens, gaining more outdoor experience. He learned to harvest stones from the woods, moving them with hand trucks and wheelbarrows, and laying out those outdoor rooms with paving stones and benches. In a mud room, he used smooth, round river rocks as tiles. He made his own pieces, too, wrestling boulders from the ground and hiking them into the trees with steel cables.

Ms. Munson began excavating the land around the house for a garden (or gardens, to be more accurate). She planted flowers first, to attract bees and butterflies, then fruit trees, vegetables and herbs. But the first year, she didn't plant at all, because the haul from the earth was fascinating to her: shards of pottery, buttons, doll parts, dog tags: evidence of 300 years of life here, which she saved in glass trays, as an archaeologist might.

"I made this huge archaeological dig," she said. "We had buckets of stuff. I imagined all these women, the meals they made, the flowers they picked."

IT is slow going when you renovate a 300-year-old farmhouse yourself on limited means. Around the time Zur was born, Ms. Munson and Mr. Handelsman learned that a New World barn, a rare and early form of Dutch immigrant architecture, was going to be torn down nearby. They bought it for a few hundred dollars, took it apart and laid it out in a field, where it remained for a few years while Mr. Handelsman, who became something of a Dutch barn scholar, learned how to put it back together.

He laid in a stone foundation that mimicked the original it had been built on. And since the wooden nails that held it together had to be ground out, Mr. Handelsman recreated them, cutting down hickory trees and whittling new pegs.

Mr. Handelsman in his studio. Behind him are his photograms, which he makes by crouching in the underbrush by the side of the road on dark nights, and then brandishing photosensitive paper when cars round the bend, to capture the play of their headlights on the leaves.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

There were setbacks, like the day he was blown from the roof when the plywood he was holding caught a gust of wind. His ankle was shattered, and he crawled to the middle of Heart's Content Road, flagging down a passer-by, who, as luck would have it, was a nurse on vacation.

It took Mr. Handelsman nearly eight years to finish the barn, which now houses Ms. Munson's studio upstairs and his below. Along the way, he built other structures. Nestled against a ridge is his sugaring shack, made from an aluminum rowboat turned upside down. Tending his fire there, where he works with a headlamp during the nights of the long sugaring season, he can look like a mad scientist in the rising steam.

Ann Agee, a ceramic artist and "Bad Girl" alumna, recently sketched Mr. Handelsman hunched over his fire. "Moby Dick," she titled her drawing. "He was like a wild man," she said recently, "doing this incredible thing with no audience. What I was drawing was a little applause."

Mr. Handelsman made his sugaring shack from an aluminum fishing boat.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Over a bend in the river is a treehouse Mr. Handelsman built for their two children, Zur and Freeda, who is now 13. When they lost interest in it, he turned it into a giant camera obscura. He thought he might photograph them swimming in the river below, but instead he became fascinated by the light inside his new "camera," zooming in on the dust motes, on the light itself.

The other day, it smelled pretty mousy, rodents having taken over in recent years since Mr. Handelsman moved on. Now, in addition to his headlight photograms, he makes videos of the shadows that creep across his studio walls in the afternoons, sonorous, evocative films that seem to tether time, slowing it to a meditative creep.

But his magnum opus may be the blueberry spiral. Inspired by a tour of labyrinths the family took in Britain, Mr. Handelsman began to plant blueberries in a double spiral shape, he said, "that was a common image in the Neolithic period." First, he planted new bushes, then he began using cuttings from those bushes.

The first spiral, more than 200 bushes in 10 varieties, is now complete. He estimates it will take another 15 years to finish the second, and 15 more for the maze to fully mature. Its harvest is more than 100 quarts of blueberries each season, which they freeze and use over the course of the year.

Mr. Handelsman's magnum opus is his blueberry maze, planted in a double spiral. Well, it will be a double spiral. The first spiral, begun 15 years ago, is finished, and Mr. Handelsman estimates it will take another 15 years to complete the second one, and 15 more for the bushes to be fully mature.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Six years ago, a chimney fire ravaged the farmhouse. Mr. Handelsman fought it with a garden hose until the firefighters arrived. But one good result, Zur noted, is that they rebuilt the roof and insulated it, which means he no longer has to sleep with his hat on or wear gloves while he reads in the winter months. Miraculously, the birch-bark bathroom survived unscathed.

"This time of year," Ms. Munson said, "Jared is chasing shadows and I'm chasing the flowers, which are fleeting. And the light is fleeting now, too."

Plastic, however, is in abundance. This has been a good month for refuse. Ms. Munson has been scouring yard sales for blue objects and fishing in the Dumpster of a neighbor who is moving. A shed is jammed with her plastic booty, which she also finds by the side of the road, in the "free" piles at thrift shops and is sometimes given by friends. There are tubs of junk sorted by color, a mass of material she is itching to assemble in the pool that she plans to have her way with soon.

"It will be beautiful," she said. "But also kind of repulsive."

The stove was a gift from friends; the clothesline is made from locust wood.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Freeda swinging in her father's studio.
Credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times