Marilyn Minter’s Co-opted Desire

Marilyn Minter, "Miley Hearts Planned Parenthood," 2016.
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“The internet wouldn’t exist without pornography,” Marilyn Minter quipped on at least two occasions while in Hong Kong for the opening of her summer solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin. Fittingly, for an artist with an arsenal of one-liners like this, Minter has made a career out of working with tropes; her glossy photographs and photorealistic paintings of cropped body parts borrow heavily from the language of fashion and beauty advertising. What purportedly differentiates Minter’s sumptuous imagery from ads, however, is the occasional inclusion of “imperfect” details, like body hair, dirt, or sweat: the figurative tossing away of the razor and airbrush for an allegedly more honest representation.

After decades of scant institutional attention, Minter’s troubling of corporeal idealism has recently brought her increased recognition as a feminist artist. Between 2015 and 2017, her major three-part retrospective Pretty/Dirty traveled to four American museums. Today, at 70, Minter’s influence extends beyond the gallery: since 2016, she has collaborated with Miley Cyrus and Marc Jacobs on a major fundraising campaign for Planned Parenthood, and is involved in Swing Left, a political and artistic group which was formed in response to Trump’s election to organize Democratic activities in swing states. Minter is vehemently anti-Trump, and considers Stormy Daniels a national hero.

In a 2015 essay, Eileen Myles once asked of Minter’s practice: “How is it that one of my absolute favorite artists makes her work out of an assortment of my least favorite things?” But despite its ambition to critique the exploitative coercion of the fashion and beauty industries, Minter’s work is frequently married with the worlds it purports to chastise. She’s often commissioned to make videos, paintings, and photographs by brands like Kiehls, MAC, and Tom Ford. In 2008 she collaborated on a line of skateboards with Supreme – a streetwear brand that trades in cultish capitalistic trickery. As it’s been refined over the years, Minter’s distinctive style has become so sleek as to evolve into a highly commodified brand of its own.

Marilyn Minter, “Pop Rocks,” 2009.

Minter’s fixation with artifice and cosmetics began early in life. Born in 1948 in Shreveport, Louisiana, she was raised in Florida by a prescription drug-addicted mother who would become the subject of her first celebrated works. The striking series Coral Ridge Towers, taken in 1969 while Minter was an art student at the University of Florida, shows the fading beauty smoking in bed, applying makeup, and dying her eyebrows. She seldom left the house.

When Minter graduated from Syracuse University in the 1970s, photorealistic painting was in vogue. This befit an artist who possessed a fine skill for naturalistic rendering but an aversion to narrative. In the 1980s, Minter made paintings from images in cookbooks of fingers handling food – deveining shrimp, scraping corn, slicing meat – and rendered them in enamel Ben-Day dots and drips. Even this early work coursed with the sexual connotations of touch and consumption.

While the Food Porn paintings flirted with the erotic, Minter’s references became brazenly X-rated in the late 1980s, when she began collecting her source imagery from porn magazines. Painted directly onto a metal first-aid kit, The Supremes (1990), for example, shows three lipsticked mouths agape and surrounding an erect penis, as if they were singing into a microphone. White enamel is drizzled and sloshed on the painting’s surface, suggesting ejaculate. At the time, the works were condemned by feminists who called them exploitative and misogynistic. Despite its regard for bodily autonomy, second-wave feminism at the time was not yet sure what to do with porn. “I was considered a traitor of feminism,” Minter told me, “but my side won. Women never owned sexual imagery and I was saying it’s time for women to make images for their own pleasure and amusement.”

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Yet a question looms over the series – the same one that we might ask of Minter’s contemporary Betty Tompkins, who had begun making paintings from porn in New York in the 1960s. During a brief interview in Hong Kong, I asked Minter about the point at which her images simply become the thing they purport to critique. The 1980s magazines that she painted from were published by men for men, and in them, female bodies are beautiful, smooth, and clean – ready for male consumption and in stark contrast to today’s female-produced erotica. Minter seemed to be banking on the assumption that a woman re-painting imagery made for the male gaze is enough to cleanse it of its rudimentary misogyny.

When I pressed Minter on the subject, she was vague and changed the topic. But later that evening during an artist talk at the Asia Society she posed the question herself, asking “Does it change the meaning for women to make images from the porn world?” Without offering an answer, she fell back on one of her soundbites: “I knew that nobody had politically correct fantasies. That’s the one thing I did know.”

Leaving genitals behind by the early 2000s, Minter began making the photographs and paintings on metal for which she is now well known: lustrous close-crops of body parts such as lacquered nails, pedicured feet, shadowed eyes, and glossy lips lapping up viscous candy, steam, or sweat. The beauty-obsessed languor of her Florida youth slipped into the work, which drips with moisture and sex. The paintings are mostly made from photographs taken in Minter’s Soho studio, compiled, cut up, and rearranged on Photoshop. The models – almost always young, beautiful, and girlish – wear heavy, glistening makeup or sparkly shoes, textures emphasized by the enamel paint applied by brush and dabbed by finger in several layers so as to give the illusions of depth and high contrast. While this process is executed mostly by a team of assistants, Minter stresses that she touches each piece.

Alongside her citations of commercial imagery, Minter includes small “flaws” like body hair, freckles, or smudged makeup as a means of subverting advertising’s clichés of perfection. In his essay for Minter’s 2015 monograph, curator Bill Arning cites the “strange, unintended, minor detail that changes [an image] from boring to memorable” as the operative device in Minter’s work. In many works, that detail is dirt, as in the painting Dirty Heel (2008), which shows some mud on a stilettoed foot. In others, like Serpent (2004), Minter asks to models shove jewelry into their perfectly-pouted mouths until they choke and drool. In one of Minter’s longest-running series, the punctum is pubic hair, usually revealed by perfectly painted fingernails stretching panties down below the pubis, fingers positioned so close to the vulva that masturbation is implied as imminent.

Marilyn Minter, “Last Sleepy Angel,” 2017.

For the recent exhibition, Marilyn Minter, at Lehmann Maupin, she presented several new paintings and photographs of women behind misty glass, saying that her goal was to depict the “bathing beauties” of art history in a contemporary light: upright in the shower rather than docile in the tub, rendered by a woman rather than a man. In the works, tongues splay out as the subjects lick, kiss, or touch the suggested shower door – actions which all appear performed for another’s gaze. The dye-sublimation photograph Last Sleepy Angel (2017) and enamel painting To a T (2018), for example, depict a young model with dark curly hair and freckles, whom Minter found on Instagram and approached for her racial ambiguity. (“She could be a million things”, the artist said, showing me her feed, “Who knows what she is?”). The images both show the woman, with a full, burgundy-painted pout behind steamy-looking glass, her eyes downcast. The images are indistinguishable from adverts; it would hardly be surprising to see a brand name across their gleaming surfaces.

As in much of Minter’s work, the female subjects in the exhibition are young and pretty; they look wet, made-up, and poised to fuck, like magazine perfume ads. But the repetition of tropes doesn’t quite add up to a coherent critique. Minter performs patriarchal and capitalistic modes of representation while relying on minor disruptive details and the myth of a redemptive female touch to stand in for deconstruction, without offering any generative alternatives. The faint subversion feels unsatisfactory, and the work can come across as plainly cosmetic in both theme and effect. Just as Pop Art may have been less successful in using mass-media imagery in self-reflexive critique than it was in the production of artworks as luxury commodities, Minter’s work performs a counterproductive politics: bolstering that which it purports to undo.

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