DENVER — Marilyn Minter’s life’s work, four decades of which are brought together in Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA), presents the viewer with a Lacanian mirror. We are born beautiful and make ourselves ugly in search of our ideal. As James Elkins writes in his book, The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing, “Vision runs back and forth from objects to eyes and whatever is seen also sees … seeing is self-definition. Objects look back, and their incoming gaze tells me what I am.” Minter’s virtuosity and cropped compositions of the body dissected allow the anonymous parts to act as surrogates to the viewer. Hers is an important voice analyzing the Western cult of the body beautiful and a problematic one as a purveyor of cosmetics and clothing (see her work for Tom Ford and MAC Cosmetics). Pretty/Dirty persuasively argues that her involvement in commercial pursuits is overshadowed by her skill at rendering reality in any style she chooses, while reflecting changing cultural concepts of beauty and consumption in ways that are both modern and prophetic.
The exhibition’s curatorial path takes the viewer through the artist’s evolution chronologically, starting while Minter was still an undergraduate at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In “Coral Ridge Towers (Mom Dyeing Eyebrows)” (1969), Minter travels home to photograph her mother and captures a woman dyeing her eyebrows. Her mother waits in bed with foam curlers in her hair, surrounded by bottles, plates, and brushes on her duvet, while the chemicals change the color of her hair follicles. This intimate image of a familiar subject is unflattering, revealing, and strangely disturbing. The mother’s gaze interrogates the viewer and disrupts the assumption that this moment is spontaneous or fleeting. It is an important preview to ideas Minter will revisit many times in her life: the pathology of beauty and how women look at themselves and each other.
Three years out of graduate school, Minter produces a series of photorealistic studies with enamel or oil on canvas that render everyday, inanimate objects. For example, “Aluminum Foil” (1978) recreates the surface effects of a folded and bunched sheet of aluminum foil on a linoleum floor. The foil scrunches and reflects light, producing a surface with patterns within patterns. Like a landscape, the foil bends and shifts the light, leaving its source untraceable. The sheet of foil casts a shadow on the floor that is broken into bands of transparency. Underneath the foil, linoleum is visible, a manufactured material intended to look natural, but the variability of the pattern is not random. Seemingly organic swirls that are manufactured to look abstract are actually predictable. This series, embedded within the larger retrospective, raises new critiques. Linoleum can’t look like marble, plywood can’t recreate the grain of mahogany, and we cannot hide who and what we already are. Whether cheap flooring or a youthful face, time will warp all surfaces.
Minter’s appropriation of the innocuous into something more savory is exemplified with the 100 Food Porn (1976) paintings. These highly cropped images of food being prepared are a strange merger of commercial visual vocabulary and art. The easily identifiable foods are rendered with benday dots, paint drips, and the tools that will be used to devour them. Whether the tools are fingers, a knife, or scissors, the viewer can practically hear the wet crunch of a crawfish head wrenched from its body, the crackling pop of a melon pulled in two, or the sounds of a knife navigating the shifting terrain of a green bell pepper, from its hard skin to its soft interior that will spew seeds when torn. The visceral quality of the raw food, with its dripping paint, creates a visual pleasure that elevates and abstracts the familiar.
Minter’s Porn Grid (1989) series amplified the accessibility of the benday dots and the visceral sensation of the drips of paint from 100 Food Porn. Here, red lips part and tongues hover over cocks like ice cream cones. The beads of sweat on a breast (“Juicier,”,1995), a shiny hand coated in perspiration, glitter, and red nail polish lay near fluffy pubic hair (“Plush #2”, 2014) all produce a smell, feel, and response. Porn Grid rendered only the pulsing and heaving parts of the body (mouth, breasts, penises), articulating Minter’s practice of breaking the body into pieces like a puzzle. Isolating these body parts allows the viewer to disassociate them from their owner and to scrutinize them in an abstract realm. Like a voyeur, the viewer’s eye becomes a hand, and from there all senses are participatory. In 1989 feminists did not want to participate in Minter’s exploration of the power of the erotic, and the work met with significant resistance. In the exhibition catalogue Bill Arning, the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (which co-organized the exhibition), notes that to show these paintings in that context was a statement, paraphrasing Minter’s position at the time: “I will look at what I want to look at, not what men or fellow women tell me I should look at.”
Minter’s undeniable skill is best explored through her portrayals of moisture. Paintings like “Dirty Heel” (2008) feel like they might drip on you. Miscellaneous grit clings to the wet heel of someone’s foot. The focus blurs on the heel of the shoe, barely revealing a few wet crystals on the shoe-back before the fog of moisture obscures the rest. Minter’s condensation captures bits of atmosphere and dirt; it grips, hangs, and lingers. “Green Pink Caviar” (2009) is a nearly eight-minute video of a tongue licking silver pebbles, a clump of hair, and green goo. The grotesque and mesmerizing lips spread thick, revealing bloched veins as they push down on glass dividing the mouth from the camera and the viewer. Like the movement of a jellyfish expanding and contracting, the mouth contorts as the tongue lunges in various directions. Is the mouth consuming or vomiting the beautiful garbage. Does it matter? Am I pretty yet? If I eat the glitter and goo will I be pretty on the inside too?
At the Pretty/Dirty exhibition opening, MCA Denver Director Adam Lerner said Minter was the most important voice of our time, eliciting an art historian’s eye-roll. Maybe Lerner was trying to right three decades of wrong that the art community committed by dismissing the nature and skill of Minter’s work. Co-curator Elissa Auther acknowledged at the Denver opening that Minter has been a victim of her own success, claiming that her work has been charged with being too beautiful to be important. Auther also noted that Minter’s involvements in commercial campaigns will likely always problematize the narrative around her. To that critique Minter responded: “I have to be involved in the fashion world, that is what my work is about. It is the world around me and I’m commenting on it. The people who criticize me for it are wearing head-to-toe Prada, you know!?” Perhaps those people are not so pleased to come face-to-foot with their beautifully grotesque dopplegangers in Minter’s paintings.