Marilyn Minter's Pretty/Dirty Challenges Our Ideas About Beauty And Desire

Pop Rocks, 2009. Courtesy of Danielle and David Ganek.
Pop Rocks, 2009. Courtesy of Danielle and David Ganek.
Photo by Chris Lane

Marilyn Minter is the type of artist whose work provokes strong reactions from people, as she addresses themes of glamour, sex, and the ways in which femininity and desire are portrayed in our society. Her first major retrospective, Pretty/Dirty, presents many examples of the artist's work spanning from the late '60s to the present. The exhibit is currently at Houston's Contemporary Art Museum, and runs through August 2.

Minter's art has always been visually rich, beginning with the Coral Ridge Towers series of photos she took of her mother as a student in 1969. Those photos are far from idealized, representing the older lady as a former beauty gone to seed. The photos disturbed her classmates, leading Minter to not show them again until the mid 1990s. They are evocative of some of Diane Arbus's work, who reportedly saw the Coral Ridge Towers photos and praised them.

Coral Ridge Towers (Mom Smoking Extra Long) 1969. Courtesy of Beth De Woody.
Coral Ridge Towers (Mom Smoking Extra Long) 1969. Courtesy of Beth De Woody.
Photo by Chris Lane

Photorealism is evident throughout all of Minter's work exhibited in Pretty/Dirty, with her paintings from the '70s and '80s showing her mastery in that regard. Her Food Porn series from 1989 - 1990 shows highly detailed close ups of food being prepared. The effect is a familiar one for anybody who has seen modern day "food porn" shared on social media networks or television shows. It's interesting that Minter chose to portray idealized representations of food as objects of desire in a way that would become a media norm over the following decades.

Earlier oil paintings like 1977's "Spill" are also photorealistic, and show Minter's obvious skill with the style. The painting's linoleum floor with a coffee spill on it looks like it could be a photograph, but isn't - a trait that is evident throughout many of Minter's paintings. Her early paintings also have the suggestion of a relationship to places women traditionally labor, with their connections to food, cleaning, and domestic spaces.

Spill, 1977 (Detail). Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York.
Spill, 1977 (Detail). Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York.
Photo by Chris Lane

The second section of Pretty/Dirty focuses on the way women are portrayed by the fashion industry. The large photos and enamel paintings in this section of the exhibit show the types of imperfections that are almost always excised in media portrayals of beauty. These pieces display body parts normally avoided in fashion photography, along with sweat, dirt, and other human blemishes that wouldn't be considered acceptable for glamorous depictions of desire. Close-ups of stubbly armpits, grimy feet, and faces marked with freckles and pimples are amazing in both execution and the juxtaposition of natural imperfections with those of traditional beauty norms. The paintings from this period also are so realistically rendered that they are nearly indistinguishable from photographs, and vividly colored, which increases a sense of hyper-reality and texture.

Blue Poles, 2005. Private collection, Switzerland.
Blue Poles, 2005. Private collection, Switzerland.
Photo by Chris Lane

In the next section of Pretty/Dirty, many of the paintings and photos are much larger than those of Minter's earlier work, and they focus on the theme of the unending human desire for sex, wealth, and food. Paintings like "Orange Crush" and "Pop Rocks" feature close ups of lipstick adorned mouths and faces that are obviously sensual, and consuming glittering food, awash in the object of their desire. These pieces seem to question whether a person is the pursuer of the things they lust for, or if those things possess them. A video Minter created has a similar mouth swirling and licking a similar mess of colored substances, and the impression it left was both sexual and off-putting, a representation of human desire simultaneously alluring and gross.

Orange Crush, 2009. Private collection.
Orange Crush, 2009. Private collection.
Photo by Chris Lane

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The final section of the exhibit involves pieces that seem to reference much of Minter's previous work and the themes she's explored throughout her artistic career. The images she has created are all beautiful, but they're transgressive too, causing the viewer to question how perfected images of desire are marketed to each of us, and what the nature of sanitized beauty really is. A recent series called "Plush" is a fine example of the dual nature of Minter's work. Originally commissioned by Playboy magazine for a piece on the modern trend of women shaving their pubic hair, the photos Minter created are visually striking close ups of women preparing to do just that. The iconic men's magazine decided that for some reason the photos were too intense for a periodical that had published nude photos of women for decades, and opted to run a highly edited version instead.

Minter's art is both challenging and beautiful. Working for decades with many mediums, she has consistently created images that are visually stunning, but that also make clever observations about the nature of beauty, glamor, and desire. Pretty/Dirty is the perfect title for Marilyn Minter's retrospective, and is well worth attending for any fan of visual art interested in the themes her work explores.


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