The duality of Minter’s work on display at Orange County Museum of Art
Best known for her lush paintings of women’s tongues, lips and eyes filled with jewels, dripping with paint or caked in makeup, Marilyn Minter has spent the past four decades interrogating society’s relationship to beauty, glamour and female bodies.
“I wanted to make beautiful images disgusting,” said Minter, whose artwork at once invokes the pages of a glossy fashion magazine while also subverting them.
“My whole premise is not to judge but to look at how the glamour industry makes you feel like [expletive], and at the same time, gives you so much pleasure.”
A traveling retrospective of Minter’s career, “Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty,” is now on display at the Orange County Museum of Art, in Newport Beach. It features paintings, photographs and video installations by the New York-based artist, created over her 40-year career.
“Historically, that’s been women’s only currency,” Minter said about her artwork’s focus on beauty and sexuality. “We can’t shame women for trying to be beautiful. That’s so mean and unfair. But there’s a part of me that thinks it’s really sad too. It’s very complicated.”
Placing Minter’s most recognized paintings in the context of her entire career allows for a fuller understanding of the meaning of her work, said Bill Arning, executive director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and an organizing curator of the exhibition.
“I’ve heard a lot of what I considered misinterpretations because people only knew 10 years of an artist who had a career of 35 years,” he said. “There were misunderstandings that she was complicit in manufacturing celebrity and beauty. I would hear that her works are just like Hollywood images. And I would be like, ‘Look more carefully! These things are kind of gnarly.’ It’s closer to ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ than an actual photo shoot.”
The exhibition begins with some of Minter’s earliest works from 1969, a black and white photo series of her drug-addicted mother, who wore wigs because she compulsively pulled out her hair and always wore full makeup even though she rarely left the house. These images, Arning said, expose the “dark underbelly of manufactured beauty,” a theme Minter continued throughout her career.
In another section, Minter’s paintings focus on the “things that are eliminated from fashion photography, like freckles, pimples, errant eyebrow hairs, wrinkles or lipstick on teeth,” said Elissa Auther, research and collections curator at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design and an organizing curator. “She’s looking at the body and all the things we hate about ourselves and try to eliminate.”
Arning’s favorite piece is in this section. “Blue Poles,” created in 2007, is a close-up of a woman with thick blue eye makeup, freckles and a pimple above one eyebrow.
“She is very aware of the time and things in culture,” he said of Minter. “This was the last moment before what I call the regime of Photoshop took over. We all know on our phone cameras how to take out red eye or make a zit disappear. This painting was the last moment when those sorts of human flaws were going to be reproduced.”
According to Auther, Minter stands apart in the genre of photorealism, in which an artist studies a photograph and attempts to replicate it through painting or drawing.
“Unlike the conventional photorealist painter of her generation, she doesn’t take photographs, project them onto the canvas, then paint them in,” she said.
Instead, Minter’s process is far more complex.
My whole premise is not to judge but to look at how the glamour industry makes you feel like [expletive], and at the same time, gives you so much pleasure.
She takes many pictures on a digital camera and then inputs them into Photoshop, where the images can be manipulated.
“She has a bunch of photographs that she’ll cut and suture different parts of into an overall image, which is never printed out and displayed,” said Auther.
Minter then uses this “sutured image” as a reference to create her painting, which is also the product of layers upon layers.
“On some level there is a copying, but it is very fluid and open,” said Auther. “Color changes are made, scale is changed, and different marks are completely removed and remade. So there’s a lot more fluidity that looks like a straight painting on canvas than someone who uses a photograph as a source to copy.”
Minter said these paintings often take over a year to create.
The end result is oversize paintings — “Pop Rocks,” for instance, is 9-by-15 feet — that from a distance are indistinguishable from high-resolution photographs.
“This is a technology that wasn’t possible when she started the work, and it allows for a kind of hyper-reality that’s absolutely fascinating,” added Arning.
“I’ve had people stand next to me and say, ‘So this is one of the photographs?’ You have to get really close to see what you’re actually looking at. They’re extremely abstract when you get up close, and the farther away you are, the more perfect they look.”
This style also plays into the broader themes of Minter’s work — fashion, glamour and femininity — by making the audience question what is authentic.
“What’s real, what’s fake, what’s been Photoshopped out and what hasn’t — these are the questions that people will come up with,” said Auther. “There are so many back-and-forths between originality, the real and the fake. All of those dualisms are undone.”
Another category that Minter complicates is feminism. While she is often given the label of “feminist artist,” she is also criticized for being too uncritical of celebrity and the glamour industry.
“There’s a feminist audience that wants to see a bright line between right and wrong and doesn’t appreciate any kind of gray area in the treatment of the female body or the use of pornography,” said Auther. “And there’s a feminist audience that really loves Marilyn’s work and enjoys the ambivalence of her not giving us the answer.
“She’s not the kind of activist artist who’s going to tell you, ‘Here’s what I think and here’s why it’s right or why it’s wrong.’”
While compiling works from the past 40 years gives audiences perspective on Minter’s vision, the exhibition has also brought clarity to the artist herself.
“There’s a consistent thread that runs all the way through when you see the very earliest works until now,” said Minter. “I suspected it, but when I saw it all together, it really made sense.
“I almost feel like I made the exact same image my whole life.”
What: “Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty”
Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays, through July 10
Cost: $10, free on Fridays
Information: (949) 759-1122
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, firstname.lastname@example.org