In a way, Marilyn Minter’s Pretty/Dirty show at Brooklyn Museum wouldn’t have garnered the kind of reaction it has outside the fever/fervor of our presidential election. Minter’s a beautiful artist with a solid body of work, but the atmosphere gave everything she makes a new, pressing tilt: Roberta Smith titled her New York Times review “A ‘Nasty Woman’ of Contemporary Art Fearlessly Renders the Body”; Minter’s “Don’t Fuck With Us, Don’t Fuck Without Us” buttons, a separate project for Planned Parenthood, have been appearing everywhere. Selling for $2 each at Printed Matter, they’re are almost sold out—”ONLY BLUE LEFT :(“.
That Minter’s work is still striking the note we need is a reminder that we’re not past, in a zillion ways, the attitude that called Minter’s ’90s porn paintings—which claimed porn photos as her own, with splashes of paint and other manipulations—anti-feminist. “…here I am, reclaiming it from an abusive history, and does it change the meaning? It frightens people,” Minter told Lenny about the episode. “My side won.” And yet, control over our own bodies is still questioned—and Minter’s work still exudes the combination of revulsion and desire in and around women’s bodies that prompts the intent to control. The tension still exists.
Her video from 2009, Green Pink Caviar, gets a cinema-sized wall towards one end of Pretty/Dirty, and it revels in the revulsion. It’s my favorite in the show. It actually does what you expect Minter’s close-ups to do at any moment; it starts wriggling and sliming around, compelling and daring and romancing. The greens and reds and golds—like bodily fluids and teeth, but also like the holiday decorations that are suddenly everywhere—feel equally festive and defiant.
A feminine mouth, sometimes lipsticked and sometimes naked, licks, sucks, and spits its way through green-ish, olive-oil textured slime, then moves its way through stages of sparkling gold, hairy pink chunks, orange marmalade with golden BBs, and then a gentler silver. I’m her champion, somehow, cheering her to get it all, to lick it clean, but I’m also worried it tastes bad, or that she’ll swallow the BBs, or that there’s a crack in the glass she’s licking; I have the “be careful” sensation so many people get when looking at women doing things—that recognition of sensitivity so often abused by people who think they’re around to fix things, or guard things. In me, that be careful sensation came with a keep going sensation; a this is fantastic sensation. Also ew, but don’t stop.
Minter’s approach to beauty has always included the real (often confused with the disgusting). If what Minter says is true, her mother was a true kook, and likely inspired this brand of beauty-obsessed horror. She was a hermit-y drug-addict who also cared deeply, narcissistically, about her beauty (photographs Minter took of her in college, in the ’60s, are eerie and campy. Classmates were so freaked out Minter didn’t show the images for 25 years). In that same Lenny interview, Minter says “she had acrylic nails, but she didn’t take care of them, so fungus would grow underneath them, and it was kind of an off-beauty.”
Body control, whether social or state-mandated, assumes a perfection—a virginity, a “nothing’s wrong”—that doesn’t exist. More off-beauty, please, so we know what’s real.