The capacity of images to shift in charge and meaning is a central, and under-explored, strand of Marilyn Minter’s survey exhibition, mounted as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s “A Year of Yes” celebrating feminist art. That Minter would even be included in such a curatorial program is a testament to visual culture’s rapid march. Only two decades ago, many decried her Porn Grid (1989) as anti-feminist and crude. Today, these “money shot” paintings—rendered in a soft, pointillist style that recalls Roy Lichtenstein—feel rather tame.
On ViewBrooklyn Museum
November 4, 2016 – April 2, 2017
Minter’s Photorealist paintings inspired by fashion editorials and advertising have, in the past, been similarly accused of doing too little critique of their source material. Though Minter venerates the flaws most fashion labels prefer to erase, she does so without abandoning advertising’s fetishizing stare or the glitz and opulence of editorial spreads. Blue Poles (2007) focuses in on a model’s eyes, lacquered with aquamarine eyeshadow and framed by a deliciously squeezable zit. Pit (2004) shows the crevice of a hairy armpit, slick and glimmering with shower condensation and sweat.
In other pieces included in the exhibition, Minter turns to more commercial references, amplifying the implied sexuality of TV and print food ads to a surreal, delirious excess. In her video Green/Pink Caviar (2009), puffed-up lips resembling sea urchins or anemones alternately slurp and spit a goop of candy-color beads and phosphorescent slime. Nearby are small “Food Porn” paintings (1989 – 90), featuring manicured hands digging into corn or snapping dripping lobster claws.
That the epithet of “food porn” evokes Instagram is fitting. As the show highlights, Minter’s art—which imbues depictions of blemishes or coarseness with girlishness and beauty—in many ways anticipated both the platform and its filter aesthetic. In recent C-prints, displayed toward the end of the show, she even adds a glass shower door, a filter in the literal sense, between the viewer and subject.
In her 2016 Triple Canopy essay “Color Goes Electric,” Claire Lehmann examines “reference images,” stock pictures created by Kodak and other companies to test audience reaction to color photography. Years of trying out different formulas proved that the most pleasing compositions were those that, Lehmann writes, provided the highest degree of “credible saturation.” Social media, color photography’s inheritor, is predicated on this same goal. How can pictures be manipulated to appear enticing yet plausible? Or, in other words, how can images be treated like commodities (altered, measured, tested) without appearing to be such?
Minter’s magical realist gaze—that is to say, one that takes in reality’s contours but prettifies them—has grown to dominate online so much so that it has become normalized. Visual humblebrags abound on social media: selfies of cute girls wearing cleansing face masks or with facetious “I woke up like this” bedhead that declare, my beauty is greater than yours because it is “real.” That such images incorporate elements of the private and unseemly does not make them any less artificial, nor does it save the picture itself from being a commodity.
Minter’s prescience regarding the arc of contemporary aesthetics unfortunately does her later work a disservice, robbing it of its bite. Ironically, the oldest and, in some ways, most traditional pieces feel the most enduringly provocative. Minter’s “Coral Ridge Tower” photographs (1969), shown at the beginning of the exhibition, are black-and-white portraits of her mother at home, caught in unflattering poses. In Mom Smoking, she reclines in an ill-fitting nightgown with a cigarette perched between her fingers. In Mom Making Up, she stares in the bathroom mirror and lines her lips with a tensed hand, flecked with age spots.
When Minter first shared the pictures with her classmates at the University of Florida, they deemed them disturbing. In the forty years since, whatever glamor Mrs. Minter has gained by virtue of embodying a now retro brand of domestic womanhood is counteracted by the frank, intrusive eye her daughter casts upon her. The feminine reality she inhabits is far less R-rated than Minter’s later images, but undoubtedly more graphic: it is reality un-heightened, lacking in aspiration or guise, bleak—at times even still disturbing.
HANNAH STAMLER is a New York City-based arts writer and history Ph.D. student at Princeton University.