A Review of Marilyn Minter: Dirty/Pretty at The Brooklyn Museum in New York
‘Being a woman today means you’re feminist, if you claim otherwise you’re just stupid.’ Marilyn Minter.
Metallic lips and outstretched tongues poised to lick. Acrylic nails, mouths crammed full of pearl necklaces and make-up-clad eyes – these are the images that come to mind when I think of Marilyn Minter, who I first discovered while absent-mindedly stalking Miley Cyrus’ Instagram. A blurred portrait showed Miley in all her usual glory - Hollywood white teeth, tongue out, licking a foggy window dripping in condensation. The image was part of a collaborative fundraiser for Planned Parenthood that garnered a lot of publicity, and it is these striking photographs and her photorealist paintings that Minter is perhaps best known for today. However her first retrospective Dirty/Pretty posits these later works within her complete oeuvre since the 1960's, giving us some much-needed context in the age of Instagram.
Upon entering we are greeted with a series of black and white photographs of Minter’s mother from 1969 that can only be described as melancholic. They were originally part of an undergraduate assignment and show the artists mother lounging, smoking and applying makeup to her already aged face. In “Mom making up” half of the light bulbs around the mirror have gone out, and I cannot help but see it as a disturbing metaphor for her fading beauty. Minter has described her mother as a “reclusive Southern Belle” and these intimate studies reveal Minter’s sensitivity to the intricacies of the painful experience of womanhood.
The next room presents a series of paintings depicting banal everyday objects on un-stretched canvas. “Black and white photo of tea bag in sink” d.1978-1979 is not a photograph but an oil painting of a teabag leaking into a drain. Another piece shows a coffee-spillage on a linoleum floor, and we begin to see Minter’s photo-realist painting style emerge. The coffee possesses the same kinetic quality and airbrushed appearance of the metallic liquids that pour out of seductive mouths in her later works.
Just as I begin to wonder when I will see her more provocative paintings that explore the complexities of how women are portrayed in the media, I find the notorious ‘Porn Grid’ painting from 1989. It is a small, humble arrangement of four canvases showing penises overflowing into eager mouths and pushed-up cleavages ready to submit. Suggestive white paint drips across the grid that is painted in typical ‘Lichtenstein’ pointillist style and has a matte finish that today seems outdated. However ‘Porn Grid’ sparked much controversy with feminists who considered it traitorous for a woman to reclaim images from such abusive histories and try to own them.
Thankfully Minter was not disheartened, and she re-incorporated photography into her practice resulting in such dizzying masterpieces as ‘Orange Crush’ d.2009 and ‘Drizzle’ d.2010. Both are enormous enamel paintings, and as a guide for the latter Minter photographed her friend, Waguchi Mutu, donning electric blue lipstick while drooling metallic coloured vodka. Yet the portrait composition and flow of liquid seem static in comparison to ‘Orange Crush’ - a flurry of magenta, tangerine and silver that stretches horizontally along the wall, mimicking the sideways tongue that feels heavy and oppressed with saliva. The room next door was filled with similar pieces however these sufficed to show that Minter successfully exploited enamel paint for all its translucent, reflective richness.
In a more intimate section of the show a wall is plastered with photos that Minter styled for Playboy magazine. ‘Plush’ 2014/2016 tackles the lack of pubic hair in pornography, and a myriad of crotches are clad in fishnet stockings and bejeweled thongs. Red nails clutch at tufts of pubic hair that glisten with sweat. The blurb on the wall tells me that Playboy only published a highly edited version of the series, because they were “too much” for the magazine. I found out later that Minter also styled a series of perfume advertisements for Tom Ford. However her images were abandoned for Terry Richardson’s photographs because the brand desired a “sharper, more graphic approach.” This of course meant that the chosen adverts displayed the perfume bottle clutched tightly within an oiled, hairless groin - Richardson at his best!
The exhibition closes with ‘Smash’ d.2014, an 8-minute video featuring stiletto-clad feet splashing around in an abundance of metallic paint in slow motion. The camera is close-up, and we are forced to focus on the acrylic red toenails of the model. The seemingly decadent arrangement gradually becomes more bizarre and disgusting the longer we watch. Upon seeing ‘Orange Crush' and ‘Drizzle’, I wondered whether Minter’s airbrushed decadent colours did not accidentally romanticize or reiterate objectifying images of women. However ‘Smash’ reassured me that Minter is indeed, just like the rest of us, dismantling the complex web of myths about desire and sexuality the beauty industry has spun for decades.
Dirty/Pretty takes us chronologically through Minter’s trajectory, and crucially reveals the central role of photography in her practice. The early portraits of her mother emerge as perhaps the most important works of the show, as they are a harrowing example of what a world dictated by the beauty industry can do to a woman. I have hope that with Marilyn and Miley on our side we can keep up the good fight.
Written by Hedy Mowinckel, a contributor to Arteviste.