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Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty

Brooklyn Museum - New York

By Taliesin Thomas

Women’s sexuality has been a fascination throughout the sweep of art history, and numerous examples from ancient to contemporary times express the allure of the female form and its power to convey, coerce and captivate. Where feminist-theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jacqueline Rose have considered the “fabrication” and “masquerade” of woman as a cultural construct, female artists employing feminine themes in their work have another responsibility altogether-the transference of these ideas into aesthetic form.

Marilyn Minter (b. 1948 in Shreveport, La.) has fearlessly demonstrated, through her unparalleled artistic exploration of female bodies, that the fantasy of female sex is a subject ripe for continued articulation and appreciation. If the “gaze” of desire remains a contested issue in psychoanalysis and art theory alike, then Minter’s ability to court our attention is a symbolic gesture that borders on reverential. Her retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, “Marilyn Minter Pretty/Dirty,” is a stunning, in-your-face depiction of glorious, garish female beauty.

Minter studied at Syracuse University and moved to New York City in 1976. She worked a string of odd jobs, from a plumber’s assistant to teacher, while focusing on her art and partying with the motley crowd that defined the 1980s downtown scene. In 1989, she purchased 30-second promotion spots during major television programs to air her 100 Food Porn commercial while exhibiting a painting series of the same title at a local gallery. Over the years, her work continued to incorporate imagery borrowed from advertising and the porn industry, and the Brooklyn Museum survey includes a selection of these examples. What appears to emerge over time, however, is a more refined depiction of Minter’s formation of sensuality. Where earlier works such as White Cotton Panties (1992) tend toward a more tawdry expression of female sex-exposed vulva and all-her large-scale paintings titled Pop Rocks (2009) and Orange Crush (2009) are both sumptuous and superb. In these particular works, colorful tongues pressed hard against glass covered with bubbles of glittered caviar suggest a majestic portrayal of femininity that transcends the semiotic.

Marilyn Minter, Pop Rocks, 2009, enamel on metal, 108” x 180.” Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, NY.

Marilyn Minter, Pop Rocks, 2009, enamel on metal, 108” x 180.” Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, NY.

The most arresting work in the exhibition is a video titled Smash (2014). Projected against a full wall in its own room, this piece features a set of female feet clad in grubby silver heels dancing in a puddle of muddied water. Minter transforms her grimy movements into a state of sublime power, although we never see beyond the scope of her ankles, her motions demonstrate an archetypal sense of passion and release as she spins, prances and kicks the area around her, creating a display that drenches the viewer in its provocative cascade. The shoes and the deluge eventually fade into a slow-motion abstraction of energetic color-the effect is mesmerizing and magnificent.

Where the prickly nature of radical feminist theories implore us to employ “caution” as we consider the tensions inherent in the conversations that inform feminist dialogue, Minter is straightforward about her intentions: “I do try to seduce people with my paintings. I want you to get sucked in by their lusciousness,” she states in the exhibition catalogue. Are Minter’s modes of sublimated sexual escapade exploitative or exquisite? Does it matter that these women are pretty and dirty? Regardless of whether or not we choose to view Minter’s work through a theoretical lens bent toward a “fair” description of female identity and corresponding images of femininity, one can appreciate these works for their unabashed display of succulent seduction as commanded by female agency.

(November 4, 2016 - April 2, 2017)

Taliesin Thomas is a Brooklyn-based artist-philosopher, writer and lecturer working in the field of contemporary Chinese art. She is the founding director of AW Asia, New York. Thomas holds an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in art theory and philosophy at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.

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