Marilyn Minter received her first retrospective, Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty, at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this year. It surveyed a career that arcs, with unflinching momentum, from the late 1960s to the present day, and cast the American artist into the spotlight and under the favourable gaze of a new generation of feminists. The show fell under the umbrella of the museum’s A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism program, a series of exhibitions and events designed to amplify the idea of feminism as an agent for progressive thinking and change. Minter has long subscribed to this mode of thought.
Her exhibition coincided with the US election, and on the eve of Trump’s inauguration in January, Minter appeared in a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Museum alongside Madonna—the two had collaborated on a video piece, Pink Green Caviar, for the singer’s 2008 Sticky & Sweet Tour. The pair spoke about activism, art and their plans for the following day: heading to Washington for the Women’s March; probably catching the coach. Off-canvas, Minter has often campaigned for gender equality and reproductive rights. In 2015, she collaborated with Miley Cyrus to support Planned Parenthood—which proved to be its most successful benefit auction to date. This same drive and energy is inherent in her artwork.
Minter is famous for her hyperreal paintings, photographs and videos that riff on fashion editorials, advertising and popular culture. Her aesthetic is distinctive, mesmeric and confronting—saturated colours; a fluid, sometimes gauzy, finish; subjects often wet-looking. Her take on the male gaze highlights its absurdity. She relishes perceived flaws in her subjects, rendering them in vivid, visceral detail—from sweat to zits to stubbly armpits. Her latest series of paintings depict female nudes behind glass—all is steamy as if straight from the shower. Almost abstract but unequivocally erotic, the series stemmed from the time when, in 2014, Minter responded to a commission for Playboy where she photographed models with natural pubic hair. The magazine rejected this editorial, which was instead picked up and published as a book, Plush, by Fulton Ryder, before later lending itself to this new suite of paintings.
Provocation and sensuality have been mainstays of Minter’s work throughout her career, but she hasn’t always been lauded for it. In 1989, she used pornographic imagery as source material for her series Porn Grid and was swiftly labelled anti-feminist by her peers and the press. Never feeling fully accepted by her generation, she nonetheless held true to her instincts and proved her avant-gardism. Her series of Food Porn paintings from 1990 precurses the rise of foodie culture by two decades.
For all the political commentary surrounding Minter’s work, the artist herself does not seek to make statements. “The artists that I’m interested in,” she described to The New York Times in a recent interview, “are the ones that make a picture of the times they live in. If you can listen to that inner voice, you’ll be fine. If you make your work from love, you’ll be fine. Just don’t try to fit in to the prevalent movement.”
Minter’s inner voice often leads her back to the same motif; succinctly summed up by the title of her retrospective, Pretty/Dirty. Ruby red ‘money shot’ mouths gorging on diamonds, a stilettoed foot caked in dirt. Minter likes the underbelly of beauty. “I’ve always been interested in elements of our culture that are considered shallow and debased and uninteresting,” she told ARTnews last year, “because they really are the engines of our whole culture”. Fashion and beauty are considered frivolous, yet they are billion dollar industries. “It’s just amazing to me that these industries drive culture and yet at the same time they’re so easy to kick in the teeth, and it’s a way to shame women, because if you’re interested in fashion and beauty you’re a shallow person,” said Minter in i-D. “I feel like I get questioned because I won’t condemn fashion and beauty and glamour, and why would I? There are very few industries that women have any power in.”
With hindsight, Minter can trace the genesis of this interest back to her mother, and to her earliest work; a black-and-white photographic series titled Coral Ridge Tower from 1969. Shot over one weekend when Minter was a 19-year-old student at the University of Florida, Gainesville, they candidly capture her mother, a glamorous woman who tried hard to maintain her beauty. She was also a drug addict, and her brand of beauty was always slightly ‘off’: acrylic nails with fungus growing underneath, a wig that hid hair lost from trichotillomania.
This slight schism implanted itself in Minter’s psyche and has likely influenced her work from an innate and personal perspective. But compelling art is art that feels intimate yet speaks of the human condition. Minter, like all great artists, is able to deal in the personal and universal at once. Memories of her mother’s precarious construction of self, have given way to explorations of the expectations placed on women, and of society’s constructs of femininity—the discord between projection and reality, and the moment when glamour turns into something darker. A series of large-scale paintings made in 2009 are all mouth, tongue and glitter candy smeared hungrily against the glass pane that fills the frame. This series, perhaps more than any other, epitomises a defining quality of Minter’s work—her ability to allure and repulse in one powerful shot.
The way Minter speaks about her art tells us she is both passionate and prosaic about process; about composition and mark-making and painting people wet purely because, to her they look better. It’s true that not all artists set out to champion causes and charge their work with political weight, but some can’t help it. Minter’s vision means her voice is being heard; her art celebrated for its razor-sharp acuity and punch-in-the-guts impact. And she is embracing that responsibility.
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