October saw the launch of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a yearlong series of ten exhibitions celebrating the 10th anniversary of the museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The series’ first two exhibitions honor two unique feminisms. Today, we’re taking a look at them both: Beverly Buchanan’s Ruins and Rituals and Marilyn Minter’s Pretty/Dirty.
A woman just beginning to show the signs of a life well-worn, with deeply impressed laugh lines and a made-up face sagging ever so slightly, stares almost seductively, or maybe placidly at you from her bed. A cigarette burns in her liver-spotted hand, the strap of her nightgown barely hangs on to one shoulder. The photograph is titled Coral Ridge Towers (Mom Smoking) (1969/1995), and as titled, along with the eight other photos in the series, it depicts the artist’s mother in her Florida home. But there is a reason it took Marilyn Minter over twenty years to print and show this series.
On a walk-through of her recently opened retrospective at Brooklyn Museum, Minter stops at the Coral Ridge Tower series, which begins the show, to recall how she didn’t feel there was anything special about these photos when she took them—she was simply snapping photos of her mother in her apartment, doing the things she usually did. But upon showing them to some classmates, she realized that what she’d captured was something entirely different. She saw what they saw: a woman defeated by the patriarchal standards of femininity.
Marilyn Minter, Coral Ridge Towers (Mom Smoking), 1969/1995, Gelatin silver print. Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody
Pretty/Dirty, Minter’s first major retrospective, explores this idea of abject beauty that we see running throughout her entire oeuvre—from her first student photographs, to her current paintings and videos. As a show, it is concise and clear cut, taking a few choice samples from each era of the artist’s history in order to create a trajectory to understanding more fully how she arrived at her current work: the glossy, high production value, artificial colored, painted lips and lacquered nails—all resulting in what looks almost like Maybelline advertisements on acid.
But the early works play an important role in understanding this largely misunderstood artist, because we see that there is a desire throughout to give agency to the unspoken, the overlooked, the scoffed, the embarrassing. Through the photographs, paintings, and videos she dissects this idea of beauty, a beauty that has been forced down the throats of women like her mother, a beauty that she herself would not be consumed by, rather she would turn in on itself, revealing the guts of glamour.
Marilyn Minter, Big Girls, 1986, Enamel on canvas, 2 panels. Collection of Bill Contente, New York
The first real hint of this after the early photographs is Little Girls #1 (1986) and Big Girls (1986), both of which depict a deconstruction of women’s bodies via the media they are most widely represented in: magazines. Each painting is constructed from source images ripped apart and put back together, representing the scrutiny women’s bodies are put through on a daily basis. This is the beginning of Minter’s interest in reclaiming oppressive images from the media for her own feminist agenda.
Included as well are her photorealist paintings of floors and sinks, mostly taken from her home and in her studio. Here, in a collision of the domestic realm with the workspace, we see that she trained her photorealist eye on the mundane, turning the ordinary into something beautiful, something to look at or even objectify. It’s not until later in her career that she brings this technique back, focusing instead on the absurdity of realism—the freckles the fashion industry takes such pains to erase (Blue Poles, 2007), the stubble still visible in freshly shaved underarms (Armpit, 2006), the unsightly marks binding clothes leave on bodies (Sock, 2005). Even the close-up shots in Plush (2016) are beautiful, taking a kind of professional care to make each individual bush look like a star—a head shot for your vulva.
Marilyn Minter, Armpit, 2006, C-print. Courtesy of the artist, Salon 94, New York, and Regen Projects, Los Angeles
This sort of sexual glorification is also visible in her first hardcore porn paintings, like Porn Grid (1989). To a contemporary audience the paintings might seem quaint, portrayed in bright colors, with an almost cartoonish halftone dot matrix, which was actually a laborious hand-painted effect. In fact, the depictions may not even register as “hardcore porn” anymore, as we see things almost as graphic on HBO these days. But it’s important to note that these paintings were coming out of a time wrought with identity politics, and just by daring to go tackle the issue of porn had established Minter as something of a feminist-outcast, a traitor to the rhetoric of the time, shunned as a perceived accomplice of oppression.
Looking back we can see that she was taking a feminist stance that was way ahead of her time with these paintings. Minter, as a heterosexual woman, was reclaiming the oppressive images from porn in hopes to turn them on their head with a female sex-positive message. Porn has been a reality of our culture for longer than most like to admit, so by co-opting these images of consensual sex, she was giving women agency over their sexuality, agency to enjoy and indulge in their sexuality. Plus, she noted, “no one has PC fantasies, anyways,” so we might as well get it all out there in the open. She was also searching for subject matter that would indeed shock and alarm for the very fact that a woman was dealing with it, noting that “if Mike Kelley could mine 13-year-old girl culture of mall culture, unicorns, crushes…” the equivalent would be her mining hardcore porn.
Marilyn Minter, Orange Crush, 2009, Enamel on metal, 108 x 180 in. Private collection
Her practice and eye have certainly grown and evolved along with the available technology, now incorporating higher production photo shoots, from which she constructs Photoshopped images, called “cobbles,” to create the perfect source image, from which she then makes her signature photorealistic enamel on metal paintings. She has moved away from the explicitly sexual, and back into a world of opulent sensuality. In the video Meltdown (2011), a silver-heeled and bejeweled foot dripping in metallic silver, kicks through an invisible plane of glass in slow motion. And paintings like Drizzle (Wangechi Mutu) (2010) and Orange Crush (2009) display similar dripping, metallic, almost ravenous mouths pouring over with glimmering substances.
There’s something insatiable about these paintings and videos. They contain a force that draws you in and pushes you away at the very same time, imploring you to consume them, much like their subjects slurp and taste and lick. Minter is creating seductive, yet off-putting steamy, frosty, wet, crystalized, shiny gem-filled fantasy worlds. You look in and look in, until you pull back, for fear of being consumed. This is the power of subverting the patriarchal gaze, the confinement and rule of imposed femininity—that the beauty and lust can linger along with the abject and repellent.
Olivia Murphy is a writer and editor based in New York, covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in various publications both in print and online, including L'Officiel Magazine, Freunde Von Freunden, Whitehot, Riot of Perfume, doingbird, and Whitewall Magazine.
(Image at top: Marilyn Minter, Blue Poles, 2007, Enamel on metal. Private collection, Switzerland)