Marilyn Minter

Can a high-definition video, shot from under a glass plate, that shows an ample set of fleshy lips and a playfully roving tongue spitting, slurping, and licking a Technicolor array of cake decorations suspended in vodka, be said to make a feminist statement in 2010? Your response to that loaded question is likely to be roughly congruent with your position on the ubiquitous Lady Gaga and her hyperbolic, sometimes eccentric, expressions of female sexuality. If you are among those who believe that today’s unofficially anointed queen of pop is an icon of female empowerment, chances are that Marilyn Minter will, in your conception, be right there beside her. After decades of condemnation and neglect at the hands of the art-world establishment, particularly feminist critics, Minter, at sixty-two, may have arrived at last.

The video described is Green Pink Caviar, 2009. It is Minter’s second and was shown at MOCA Cleveland with a suite of large-scale color C-prints and an enamel-on-metal triptych, Orange Crush, 2009. As has been typical of her work since the 1960s, the video’s address uncomfortably and unapologetically speaks a double language. On one hand, to watch a film that records “paint” being manipulated from beneath plate glass is to recall Hans Namuth’s footage of Pollock straddling his support, flicking paint with focused seriousness. But on the other, though Minter is doubtlessly aware of this pointedly masculine precedent, her video germinated in an entirely different way: “Filmed with macro lenses, the video was inspired by a photo shoot where Minter directed her models to lick brightly colored candies while she shot photos from underneath a glass plate.” According to the work’s dedicated website, “The models’ tongues mixed the colorful sugar with saliva, slurping and pushing color across the glass surface to simulate painting.” This latter statement, combined with the fact that Green Pink Caviar was used by Madonna as a backdrop for live performances during the European leg of her recent Sticky & Sweet Tour, seems to tip the scales toward collusion with mainstream pop culture and away from art history.

Of all the works in this exhibition, the photographs made the best case for Minter’s critical relationship to the commercial use of the sensualized female body as a vessel to promote and sell lifestyles and related commodities. Gimme, 2008, a 70-by-971/4-inch unframed print casually tacked to the wall with clips, shows a woman’s open mouth—lips glossy, white teeth glistening—frozen in what appears to be an effort to catch a messy deluge of silver cupcake toppings on her tongue. The photograph is so large and the level of capture so high that every fiber, hair, and crease becomes part of the topography of the subject’s face. Under such magnification, even the innocuous silver candies shade into something repellent, more like lesions or pustules than confections. In fact, the result is an image that looks more like a photograph from a medical textbook than a page from Vogue or Hustler. The body becomes other in its hyperarticulation and its sheer biological self-evidence, pushing the photograph from an object of potential desire into something verging on the abject. Minter does not achieve this effect by obviously manipulating her subject or by simply replicating it, but rather by revealing more than we find comfortable to see. The mouth and tongue in Gimme are so overarticulated that they cease to be familiar or desirable, and in consequence, consumption is made far less attractive. Minter’s exaggeration of detail results, ironically, in a kind of abstraction of the body.

That the work in this show would not have been received well by feminist critics writing in preceding decades seems incontestable. The more salient question—does Minter’s interest in the aesthetic and psychic effects of hyperbolic sensuality have a place in the discourses of feminism today, in the era of Lady Gaga?—remains open.

Christopher Bedford