PRINT October 2015


Marilyn Minter

Marilyn Minter, PLUSH #25, 2014, C-print, 40 × 30". From the series “Plush,” 2014.

MARILYN MINTER’S exhibition “Pretty/Dirty” debuted at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston during the summer, a long-overdue retrospective for an artist who has achieved stunning mastery in painting—using techniques from the most ancient to the most advanced, from paint on a fingertip to Photoshop—to engage the engines of desire that drive our consumer culture. The show, which was co-organized with the MCA Denver (where it went on view this past month) and curated by Bill Arning and Elissa Auther, follows Minter’s evolution from straight photography to matter-of-fact Photorealism, both banal and provocative, to her current methodology: an extraordinarily complex amalgam of image, translucence, reflection, refraction, and glare. While we often talk of art as multileveled, Minter’s is truly that—a mysterious, interactive layering of planes and surfaces, transparency and opacity. Women’s bodies interact with orgiastic collages of paint, gilt, glitter, grime, water and steam, crystals and bijoux, in a uniquely personal take on glamour and eroticism that deconstructs and challenges the ever more hyperbolic commercial-media sex machine.

Minter’s current work is often mistaken for photography (and she still does take photographs), but she is primarily a painter who uses photography as source material and technique, employing software to produce images with the force of hyperreal photography and the imagination and polish of painting. Photorealism, as it appeared in the late 1960s, was a sophisticated game of inverted trompe l’oeil, with the apparently outdated technique of painting by hand elaborately mimicking the automatic and often everyday results of photography. But of course photography now is not what it was then. In the Photoshop era, photography takes as many liberties as painting, but they are meant to be covert and invisible, unless some jokey sleight of hand is the aim.

Photoshop was intended to clean up here and there, erasing a bulge or banishing a blemish, but it has since become an integral element of image creation, a Frankensteinian beauty lab, used to Barbie-ize the feminine ideal. Photoshop is now the ultimate instrument of photographic manipulation, retouching and even redesigning the face and figure toward some superhuman ideal: every woman a dream girl. Noses and breasts are standardized, ethnic heritage is homogenized, baroque features are obliterated via symmetrical modulation. The public actually believes a glass of champagne can be set on Kim Kardashian’s butt, and maybe it can.

Not only does Photoshop create an unreal yet apparently believable standard of beauty, it has ratcheted up the tension between artifice and nature to the extent that people are driven to reconstruct their own physical appearance to match its altered depictions by any means necessary, including liposuction, breast and butt implants, silicone-injected lips, and all manner of “cosmetic” surgical intervention, not to mention tyrannical fitness regimes, extreme diets, and regular depilation. We are now Photoshopping ourselves.

But where fashion photographers use Photoshop as an instrument for idealization, Minter uses it as a compositional tool, and her notion of beauty is contrarian and heretical. The exhibition’s title, “Pretty/Dirty,” is the only clue we need. Instead of cleaning up her women as fashion magazines do, or constructing a supermodel force field of unapproachability, Minter makes dirty pictures that invite joyous, rollicking intimacy. She embraces flaws and emphasizes them, glorying in indiscretions and the rushed chaos born of excitement. She finds earthy allure in the stubble of a shaved armpit, or a pimple among the freckles that have otherwise been banished from the canon of beauty. She revels in sidewalk grime soiling perfectly pedicured toes. Glitter, sweat, and smeared cosmetics conjure up honky-tonk women and Mardi Gras queens. In Minter’s tableaux, we are confronted with the history of sexuality, particularly American sexuality and its spectacular contradictions. Here are the ghosts of the stripteases and peep shows that haunt our imagination. Here is the troubling reality that some like it hot and some like it dirty.

Minter first broached these themes many years ago, and they got her in trouble—not with the authorities, but with avowed feminist artists and critics. Today, most art-world observers seem to have come around, and the critiques that do appear are telling with respect to women’s empowerment. Among the photos in “Pretty/Dirty” is a 2014 series titled “Plush,” which shows the pubic hair of several women, in various colors and shapes. The series was originally commissioned by Neville Wakefield for Playboy during a brief attempt to revive that magazine as a serious cultural platform. Objection came from an unlikely quarter: Hef. The man who fought so hard to finally show pubic hair in his pages now apparently considered it obsolete. And it’s true that many young people have enjoyed limited exposure to a hirsute mons veneris since the triumph of the Brazilian.

Or perhaps, deep down, Hef was fearful that if the erotic depiction of women fell into their own hands, it might be found to contain hidden powers previously unsuspected.

“Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver through Jan. 31, 2016; travels to the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA, Apr. 2–July 10, 2016; Brooklyn Museum, Sept. 19, 2016–Jan. 22, 2017.

Glenn O’Brien is a writer based in New York.