Marilyn Minter's Art is a Powerful Ownership of Female Sexuality

Marilyn Minter's Art is a Powerful Ownership of Female Sexuality

With the rhetoric on reproductive rights more heated than ever, the artist's fearless renditions of the female body come as a necessary reminder to prepare for what she says will be "the fight of our lives."

With the rhetoric on reproductive rights more heated than ever, the artist's fearless renditions of the female body come as a necessary reminder to prepare for what she says will be "the fight of our lives."

Text: Mariana Fernandez

“I just make pictures of the lives we live,” says artist Marilyn Minter. “And pornography and glamour and fashion are giant engines of today’s culture.”

In the wake of an election that has, and promises to continue to, underscore women’s rights, Marilyn Minter’s trailblazing sex-positive work has finally gotten the retrospective it so desperately deserved at a time when the world needs it most. Pretty/Dirty, currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, is an exploration of the fashion industry’s underbelly, a celebration of the artist’s three decades of subversive renderings of the body and the beauty norms imposed on it.

'Meltdown' (2011) and 'Orange Crush' (2009) on view at the Brooklyn Museum

As the aptly-titled exhibition suggests, Minter’s work is a juggling of juxtapositions: of beauty and ugliness, of glamor and perversion, of ownership and disembodiment. A vivid hyperrealist photograph of manicured toenails reveals dirt underneath (Soiled, 2000) while in an enamel painting blue eye shadow is piled atop pimpley, freckled skin (Blue Poles, 2007). Through discarnate representations of mouths, eyes, hands, and vaginas, Minter’s enamel works and photographs both beg for the objectification of the bodies they depict and are a direct resistance to it.

Pretty/Dirty opens with a series of black-and-white photographs of the artist’s mother taken in 1969. Minter was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and grew up in South Florida with a compulsive gambling father who left his mother for another woman when Minter was eight. “It’s a trope for novels,” Minter says. “My mother did go slightly crazy after being left because she was a Southern belle who expected the patriarchy to take care of her.”

Series 'Coral Ridge Towers' (1969) on view at the Brooklyn Museum

When Minter first showed those photographs of her mother to her classmates at the University of Florida, “they didn’t know what to make of them.” In the provincial city of Gainesville, the renderings of high-end drug addiction came as a shock. For Minter, though, they were just memories of her childhood. “My brother and I still don’t see what you see in these pictures of my mom,” Minter says. “We just see mom.” But in the context of her larger retrospective, the photographs could be interpreted as a testament to the self-destruction and delusion that inevitably results from trying to uphold normative gender standards.

It was also at the University of Florida that Minter met one of her greatest inspirations to date, Diane Arbus. “I spent five minutes with her and she was just a phenomena to me,” Minter says. Braless in a silver mini-skirt and matching sandals with her one-and-a-half-inch hair, Minter thought it was aspirational to see “this is what you could look like in the world.”

From series of re-photographed models from Minter's 'Plush' shoot (2015) on view at Salon 94

From then on, she has continued to explore alternative representations of female beauty. Minter’s recent work however, while still maintaining its iconic hedonism, gravitates more towards abstraction than her earlier photographs. Since 2009, the artist has been working with some kind of glass between the subject and herself, whether it be a wet glass with running water, a frosted glass, or a steamy one. On view at the Brooklyn Museum is Black Orchid, a variation of a piece commissioned by V in 2012 depicting a face with lush purple lips blurred behind droplets of water. Her fixation with wetness? “I grew up in such a moist climate!” Minter says. “My mother used to tell me that I used to turn the faucet on and just play with it for hours. People just look better wet to me.”

From series of re-photographed models from Minter's 'Plush' shoot (2015) on view at Salon 94

The blurred portraits of women’s pubic hair that comprise Minter’s concurrent show at New York’s Salon 94 originally began as a rejected Playboy editorial from 2014. They closely mirror the artist’s more recent photographs in collaboration with Miley Cyrus to raise money for Planned Parenthood. Minter also helped organize the “Dear Ivanka” action held this past Monday night, for which more than 150 artists, including the likes of Cecily Brown, Jonah Freeman, and Rob Pruitt, turned out to express fear and contempt of the President-elect’s policy positions.

“I lived through Reagan. I lived through the AIDS crisis. I lived through Nixon. I lived through two Bushes. We’re gonna get through this,” Minter says. “At least now we have something to get together over.”

Credits: All photos courtesy of the artist and Salon 94.

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