“The time has come to think about sex,” announces Gayle Rubin in the introduction to her seminal essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (143). Written in 1984–the year of Reagan’s reelection, Rubin’s pro-sex polemic came as a response to not only Reagan’s AIDS-denying conservatism, but also the pearl clutching, anti-pornography and anti-S&M stances of a large swath of feminists. Addressing the upheaval of the mid-1980s and the place of sex within it, Rubin continues, “…it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality” (143).
Sound familiar? I know it does to me. Staring down the barrel of a Trump/Pence administration, dangerously crazy feels like an understatement. This is exactly why Marilyn Minter’s current retrospective Pretty/Dirty at the Brooklyn Museum seems so necessary. Minter is the lurid voice that we need in these troubled times.
Admittedly, I never seriously considered Minter’s art’s transgressive potential before being faced with the steamy and seamy glory of an entire retrospective. While I’ve always enjoyed her art’s saliva-drenched sleaze, it may have been too integrated into popular culture with her collaborations with Madonna and Miley Cyrus for me to fully devote my attention. It just also may have been the right time politically.
Spanning the entirety of Minter’s career, Pretty/Dirty is filled to the brim with tongues, lips, glitter and copious amounts of fluids. Simply put, Minter’s art is wet–and it also seems to aim to make the viewer wet in the process. Her paintings and photographs are tactile and sensual. There’s the soft feeling of pubic hair, sticky humid lips traced over frosted panes of glass, and oozing drips of colored vodka and bubbles of caviar spilling from gaping mouths. Minter’s work is about sex, even when it’s not purposefully about sex.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some aesthetic surprises. The exhibition opens with the series Coral Ridge Towers–black and white photographs of Minter’s mother, part of an undergraduate assignment from 1969. These muted and mediative photos, at first, look entirely different from the poppy, color-infused, sensory barrage of her more popular work. But, on closer inspection, there’s an obsession with beauty, superficiality and female self-fashioning here that echoes her later paintings. There’s also a certain unbalanced Grey Gardens aesthetic that captivated me, but apparently freaked out her classmates who found the series too dark.
But beyond some of Minter’s early experimentations, her art is completely and refreshingly explicit, as well as female-centric. And that’s the key to Minter’s critical eye. Part of the Brooklyn Museum’s year-long feminist-centric programming The Year Of Yes: Reimagining Feminism, Pretty/Dirty delves into Western society’s construction of female sexuality and a certain unbounding of these patriarchal definitions through the representation and celebration of female sexuality itself by a woman artist.
Arriving at her sex-influenced work around the same time Rubin took on the anti-pornography feminists, Minter’s art reflects Rubin’s notion in “Thinking Sex” that “sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress” (143).
But even though Minter treats sexuality with respect, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t also have a great sense of humor. One of my favorite series in the show is 100 Food Porn. In these paintings, hung in a staggering grid at Pretty/Dirty, disembodied hands crack, slice, squish, peel, massage, chop, rub and inspect different items of food. It looks like an analogue version of Stephanie Sarley’s oddly erotic Instagram posts in which she fingers her food.
In Minter’s 100 Food Porn, squirts of liquid run over the paintings like sexual fluids. The wall label at the Brooklyn Museum, presumably feeling awkward about all the sex talk, reflects on the series’ reference to Abstract Expressionism with Minter’s drips. While, to give them a bit of credit, the label does say there’s also “flying fluid,” but, let’s be precise, it looks like cum and vaginal secretion. It feels tone deaf to compare Minter’s wet bursts with the hypermasculinity of Abstraction Expressionism (though I understand she’s aiming to take on that language in order to shatter it). There’s a long history of women artists that deal with the relation between food and the body from Carolee Schneemann to Karen Finley –why not delve into that instead? It’s like we have to resort to comparing women artists to men in order to fully understand them.
Anyway, rant over.
As seen in the shimmering 100 Food Porn paintings, Minter’s work might portray the messy cleanup of sexuality, but she does so in a manner that is all surface and sheen. This isn’t to say she rejects imperfections entirely. While there are not technical imperfections in her own hyperrealistic work, Minter seems to adore representing her subject’s flaws. For example, the painting Blue Poles zeros in on a model’s stray eyebrow hairs, freckles and a pimple. As John Waters says, “To me, beauty is looks you can never forget. A face should jolt, not soothe” (128).
Taking imagery from magazines, advertisements and other pop cultural realms, Minter both critiques this superficial construction of desire and revels it. While other artists outright reject the cultural manipulation of women’s bodies as objects of the dominant male gaze, Minter seems to see a type of beauty in it and a power in reappropriating its controlling imagery, which itself is more subversive than even a blatant critique.
Which is precisely why Minter, early on in her career, got in trouble with the same anti-pornography feminists who Rubin was responding to in “Thinking Sex.” As Minter recently recalled in an interview with ArtNews: “The fact that I even used sexual imagery was itself just so threatening. I scared people and I think the fear came from repurposing images from an abusive history. They didn’t know if that could be done. And then, I was asking questions without having any answers myself.”
Those critics would probably not enjoy Minter’s recent photographic series Plush. Commissioned by Playboy Magazine, Plush, in short, celebrates pubes. Rather than waxing or shaving like typical 21st century porn stars, the women’s hands in Plush reach into their underwear to caress their short and curlies. Apparently, these fingernailed hands were enjoying themselves a bit too much and the magazine only printed an edited version. Female sexuality still remains a destabilizing force.
But at the museum, the series is presented as an enormous wall of self-gratification and solo touching. Looking at the piece, I couldn’t help but think of Luce Irigaray’s notion of the constant touching of a woman’s two labial lips as a threat to “phallogocentrism.” As Irigaray writes in This Sex Which Is Not One, the woman’s body touches “itself over and over again, indefinitely, by itself, that pleasure is denied by a civilization that privileges phallomorphism” (26). This pleasure in the self and the female body, as depicted by Minter, is inherently anti-patriarchal, proving the power and importance, as Rubin noted, of sex.
But can these sexual representations be used as a type of political opposition? Rubin seemed to think so. She writes in “Thinking Sex,” “..sex is always political. But there are also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized. In such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated” (143).
We’re currently in one of those periods. Minter’s embrace of porn, sexuality and female eroticism, I have a feeling, will read as even more critical in the context of the forthcoming Trump administration. Sure, the Cheeto in Chief himself isn’t anywhere near anti-porn–I mean, he appeared in one! But, the creeps he’s surrounded himself with are certainly more likely to enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale than The Story of O.
Minter’s feminism is the kind we need now–raunchy, filthy, dirty and pretty fucking feminism. As Minter says to The Cut, “There are as many feminists as there are women…you can be a pro-sex feminist [and] you can be a porn star and be a feminist. To try and make [any] model of a Good Feminist is a crock of shit.”