In Pretty/Dirty, her first ever retrospective now open at the Brooklyn Museum through April 2, 2017, Shreveport-born artist Marilyn Minter makes beautiful the sorts of things we ordinarily think of as ugly, or even disgusting—pimples, pubic hair, open mouths, and dirty toenails, to name a few of her subjects. Spanning a career that began in the late 1960s, the exhibition features paintings, photographs and films that share a common subject—the female body. Her vision of the feminine has not always been accepted by the mainstream—her paintings of hardcore pornography got her excommunicated from the art world in the 1990s, for example. But 2016 is the year of “nasty women,” and Minter’s work, which celebrates not only beauty, but also desires and human imperfections, has never looked more relevant.
The show opens with “Coral Ridge Towers,” a 1969 series of black and white photographs of the artist’s mother in her apartment, smoking cigarettes in bed and applying make-up. Minter’s mother was a decaying Southern belle addicted to prescription painkillers—the series was taken while Minter was a student at the University of Florida. In the photographs, her mother resembles Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, making herself beautiful for a male gaze that no longer falls on her. The photographs are full of decay, but they are also truthful—what woman doesn’t follow a beauty routine even in her worst moments? And how many great beauties, from Marilyn Monroe to Lana Turner, trapped in their own bodies, turned to relief in drugs or alcohol?
The dark side of beauty is a theme throughout the retrospective. Little Girls #1 (1986), a painting done in a pointillist style from Minter’s series Big Girls, Little Girls, shows a young girl looking at her squat reflection in a funhouse mirror. It is juxtaposed with Big Girls (1986), a collage-like work that shows Sophia Loren turning her head towards Jayne Mansfield’s overflowing cleavage—two “big girls” who represent a completely unattainable ideal of beauty. The series was created during the first peak of Minter’s career—1986 was a year she exhibited at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York, with the German expressionist painter Christof Kohlhofer. Her experimentation would the pornographic came soon after, temporarily derailing her career. The fall from grace made her invisible in the 1990s, but seemed to allow to her visually expand her notions of beauty by the time she reemerged on the scene with an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2005.
Imperfections are given their due in works like Blue Poles (2007), an image that shows the bridge between two eyes covered in bright, sparkly eye shadow. The eyes look like they’ve been taken out for a night of partying—the shadow is smudged, and from beneath a sheen of sweat emerges an angry white pimple. The painting highlights what, in the world of digital imagery, would almost always be Photoshopped out—but it also provokes a visceral reaction. I wanted to reach into the painting and pop the pimple, just as I would if I was looking at my reflection in the mirror, and saw the same. Minter’s subject is every woman; the story of her life is not a narrative, but a personal memory. A night of bad decisions, followed by the burn of a sunrise, and the accompanying guilt manifested in one painful pimple.
Visceral satisfaction can also be derived the 2014 video Smash, which depicts a pair of feet clad in bejeweled high heels. The feet stand in a pool of silver liquid; in slow motion, the right foot draws back, and then kicks a pane of glass right in front of the lens of the camera. The glass shatters; the video fades to black. What nasty woman feeling sexy in her favorite pair of heels doesn’t occasionally feel like breaking shit harmlessly?
Much of Minter’s work from the past decade harnesses the power of glossy advertisements—she’s designed campaigns for Tom Ford, M.A.C. Cosmetics and Jimmy Choo. Large scale works such as Black Orchid (2012), which depicts a beautiful woman wearing black lipstick behind a pane of wet glass, and Pop Rocks (2009), which shows a tongue covered in tiny silver balls, could easily be advertisements for cosmetics in an edgy fashion publication like Purple or The Love Magazine. Blown up large scale so that they cover almost an entire wall, in the exhibition, they function as a physical manifestation of our outsized desire. Smart woman are often made to feel ashamed for loving make-up and Kim Kardashian; Minter gives us permission to embrace the gut pleasure we feel looking at a beautiful crafted, lush advertisement. Her work does not discount the surface, but allows for it.
The retrospective was co-organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Minter concurrently has an exhibition of works from her series “Plush,” which was originally created for Playboy in 2014, at Salon 94 in New York through December 22, 2016.