A Controversial Artist’s Take on Sex, Beauty, and Consumption

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Photo: Courtesy of Marilyn Minter

In I Love Dick, Chris Kraus writes, “Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement? Why do women always have to come clean?” The artist Marilyn Minter’s provocative, sex-positive work, which was misunderstood in the ‘90s as un-feminist, serves as a living testament to this idea.

Minter, whose first retrospective just opened at the Brooklyn Museum, repurposes imagery from beauty ads, fashion editorials, and porn, adding a layer of grit to criticize a culture that puts a premium on how women look. Scintillating photo-realistic paintings reveal rainbow-colored nails lined with dirt and diamond jewelry that drips with body fluids. Video works capture tattooed feet shoved into muddied heels and glossy lips that curl into a snarl. In the show, titled “Pretty/Dirty,” the subversive underbelly of Minter’s work is revealed in all its shimmery, gritty glory.

Minter teases out an exaggerated picture of femininity in which lips and nails are saturated with color and skin emits a supernatural glow. In 1992, Elizabeth Hess of The Village Voice criticized Minter’s work, writing that unlike Cindy Sherman, Minter “turns the volume down on her sexual rage” and reinforces the male gaze by copying degrading images from porn. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, this was a popular read. Today, Minter is recognized as a trailblazer who celebrates women’s sexual agency and unashamedly takes pleasure in making sensual images. The “porn and fashion industries are engines of the culture,” she says, “so why not examine them?”

The poster-child painting for the exhibit, Blue Poles (2007), is a tightly cropped rendering of a young model with bushy, caterpillar-like eyebrows and dramatic, blue eyeshadow-flecked eyes. Instead of blurring or editing out her pimples and freckles, Minter embellishes them with intensified color contrast. “I like my models to have a strong feature, whether it’s large lips or freckles or a big nose or dark eyebrows and blonde hair,” she tells me. “I’m not interested in making another pretty face.”

These splashy, large-scale paintings of disembodied mouths, eyes, and toes provide a nice antidote to quieter meditations on domestic work and Minter’s family life. A series of small, black-and-white photographs of Minter’s mother are both poignant and clear-eyed, captured with the filmic quality that permeates her oeuvre. During a walk-through for the exhibit, Minter called her mother — an addict who wore a wig to conceal her hair loss — a “Southern belle who was thrown away,” “an ancient beauty, [and] an off-kilter beauty.” And in the “Pretty/Dirty” monograph, the poet Eileen Myles describes the photos as intimate “portrait[s] of the subject’s daughter” — self-portrait disguised as family history.

In the mesmerizing video Smash (2014), a dancer wearing gaudy, bejeweled stilettos descends from a trapeze to move in slow motion to a thrumming beat. With the exception of red nails and jewel-toned rhinestone fringe, the frame is overwhelmed with a metallic silver color (created from a mix of vodka and food dye). As the music intensifies, her feet go from playful dancing to fierce stomping and then violently shattering the glass pane separating the subject from the camera — sending glittery shards covered in the viscous liquid flying in every direction. If not for the model’s unkempt toes, deteriorating shoe sole, and the overall garishness of it all, Smash could conceivably be a high-fashion film.

“The mainstream fashion world hates me,” Minter tells me, but “fashion is not my livelihood.” When she works on commission for a fashion project, it’s an editorial shoot that involves setting fire to luxury handbags, or an advertising campaign where $15,000 loafers are shot dripping with mud. I ask about the response to her Tom Ford campaign in 2007 and she laughs and shares that his team was “unhappy” with many of the photos. “We don’t share an aesthetic,” she says. Minter’s more at home working on editorial shoots, anyways — shooting gutsy, sensory-rich series for magazines that afford her creative freedom, like W magazine and Purple.

When I ask Minter about her studio, she explains that they operate with “a lot of double-doers”— painters who build sets and photographers who work interchangeably on assorted projects. “It’s like a Rembrandt studio, except it collides with Silicon Valley” because everyone is wearing earbuds while they work. “I hire people that are labor-intensive and get some kind of therapeutic pleasure” out of making this sort of repetitive, detail-oriented work. “We call it the knitting gene.”

Johan Olander, Minter’s studio assistant for the past 25 years, sees himself as a facilitator of her vision, and tells me that they “joke about how irritating it is when you actually have to verbally communicate ideas instead of just transmitting telepathically.”

Perhaps the most provocative work in “Pretty/Dirty” is Bring Back the Bush, a series of close-up photos made on commission for Playboy in 2014. In the photos, fingers stroke untrimmed pubic hair and crotches are punctuated with sadomasochistic accessories like coiled chains and tautly fastened belts. (The project was edited out of the issue and never published.) Installed in a sort of purgatory space in between two rooms of her recent work, the series demonstrates Minter’s creative range. Not only can she translate Photoshopped pictures into compelling enamel paintings on metal canvases, but she can also transform oily, tattooed navels and pierced genitals into abstract, almost cosmic topographies.

“There are as many feminists as there are women,” Minter tells me as she adds my email to a listserv for “Bad Bitches,” a group of millennial women who drink and network at her studio after-hours. “You know,” she says, “you can be a pro-sex feminist [and] you can be a porn star and be a feminist. To try and make [any] model of a Good Feminist is a crock of shit.”

Pretty/Dirty” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from November 4, 2016, to April 2, 2017.

A Controversial Artist on Sex, Beauty, and Consumption