The September Issues

THE BEAUTY PARADOX
in conversation with MARILYN minter

GEM FLETCHER INTERVIEWS THE TRAILBLAZING CONTEMPORARY ARTIST MARILYN MINTER TO EXPLORE HOW HER WORK EMPHASIZES THE STRENGTH AND SENSUALITY OF THE IMPERFECT FEMALE BODY. GORGEOUS AND GROTESQUE, MINTER'S PIECES URGE THE VIEWER TO CONFRONT DEEP-ROOTED SOCIETAL PARADOXES SURROUNDING OUR IDEAS ABOUT BEAUTY, DESIRE, AND SEDUCTION. 

BIG MOUTH, 2017, enamel on metal ©MARILYN MINTER

words GEM FLETCHER
photography MARILYN MINTER

Since the late 1960s Marilyn Minter has extrapolated her personal experience as a woman in paintings, photographs and videos that explore the strength and sexuality of the female body. She explores the deep-rooted paradoxes surrounding our ideas about beauty, desire and seduction, confronting contradictions and challenging perceptions. In Minter’s world, beauty does not equate to perfection, but instead, she celebrates raw, off-kilter energy that is much more disarming. Her observations are rich and intimate; a red lipstick smudge that clings to a pristine white tooth or the dirt underneath perfectly polished nails. These minor imperfections are the antithesis of western beauty ideals and open up a meaningful dialogue about identity politics and female sexuality.

“No one has politically correct fantasies,” Minter tells me. “I think pornography, fashion, and glamor are giant engines of the culture, and should be examined by artists—not held in contempt.” In 1989 Minter released her “Porn Paintings” to much controversy. The paintings were widely misinterpreted as being complicit in the abuse of women in the porn industry, when in reality Minter was attempting to push the boundaries around the kind of work a young female artist could create. “It was like a slap in the face to first and second generation feminists. A woman using sexual imagery was abhorrent to them. That generation was trying to remove sexual imagery from the discourse,” she says. “I have always worked with things that are considered contemptible. I was taking abusive imagery and repurposing it. A lot of feminists in my generation were coming from fear and here I was taking power and trying to own it.”

“NO ONE HAS POLITICALLY CORRECT FANTASIES,” MINTER TELLS ME. “I THINK PORNOGRAPHY, FASHION, AND GLAMOR ARE GIANT ENGINES OF THE CULTURE, AND SHOULD BE EXAMINED BY ARTISTS—NOT HELD IN CONTEMPT.”

photographed by JODY ROGAC in NYC on August 8, 2018
makeup JENNY KANAVAROS

The ways in which women can own and explore their sexuality is a battle still being fought. Despite the increasing recognition of the female gaze and feminism as a force for progressive change, female artists who deal with questions of sexuality are still open to a whole lot of slut shaming. “Now I’m older and work with sexual imagery, everyone thinks it’s adorable,” Minter tells me. “I’m not threatening.” She recalls Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1982 image of Louise Bourgeois holding a giant dildo. “Everyone thought that was so cute, but when Miley Cyrus does it look what happens. When I made this work when I was younger, it was verboten. It’s fascinating to me that if you’re young and beautiful and work with sexual imagery, you are such a threat to both men and women. Society is suggesting women can’t be the owner of sexual power—they can only be the object of it.”

IT’S FASCINATING TO ME THAT IF YOU’RE YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL AND WORK WITH SEXUAL IMAGERY, YOU ARE SUCH A THREAT TO BOTH MEN AND WOMEN. SOCIETY IS SUGGESTING WOMEN CAN’T BE THE OWNER OF SEXUAL POWER—THEY CAN ONLY BE THE OBJECT OF IT.”

GINGER, 2016, enamel on metal ©MARILYN MINTER

At the core of Minter’s practice is a desire for conversation. Her art is a catalyst for dialogue, and lures the viewer in through her seductive and visceral approach. “100 Food Porn”, a collection of highly cropped sensorial paintings of food being prepared, evokes the parallels of desire in our relationship with food and sex. The paintings, mined from cookbooks, force the viewer to confront their voyeurism, implicating our tendency to read sex into the ordinary. Minter shares, “It’s this constant seduction paradox. When something can be so delicious, but it will make you fat if you keep eating it. I’m interested in the gray area where beauty gives you so much pleasure, but it causes so much pain. It’s one of the few places where women have real power, but you know you’re never going to look that good. No one looks that good.”

Much of Minter’s work focuses on finding the true allure that comes from the sensuality of imperfection. In “Blue Poles”, she takes a beautiful face laced with turquoise shadow and reveals the flaws—errant eyebrow hairs, freckles, the odd pimple. The painting is a celebration of beauty and the un-retouched face. She champions armpit hair, dirty toenails, the skin indentations left by a sock, and dedicates a whole series to female pubic hair. “You never see a bush in art history. Why is that?” Minter questions. “It’s not an ugly thing. I’m excited to put pubic hair back into the world. I’m still trying to find the most beautiful bushes to paint so that people can put them in their living room.”

BLUE POLES, 2007, Enamel on metal ©MARILYN MINTER

Minter has been an activist her entire life, addressing topics like sexual abuse and reproductive rights, but the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election was a decisive moment in her practice. “You can be much more persuasive with humor and absurdity than with anger,” she says, and recalls a YouTube video from Finland in which a group called the Loldiers of Odin make fun of politics dressed as clowns. “Instead of white power, it’s wife power, and it’s a bunch of drag queens dressed as brides. Humor is much more effective in politics than anger.” Through Minter’s merger of art and activism, she employs humor, seduction, or absurdity to empower and enlighten her audience. “I’m not interested in being hit over the head with anything. All the art that I’m interested in is multilayered and has many readings. I want you to bring your history and trajectory as a viewer. What strikes me is when you see something you know to be true, but you’ve never seen an image of it. Those are the elements I’m always looking for when I’m making work. I don’t want it to be something that is an easy read.”

“I’M NOT INTERESTED IN BEING HIT OVER THE HEAD WITH ANYTHING. ALL THE ART THAT I’M INTERESTED IN IS MULTILAYERED AND HAS MANY READINGS.

DARK WIPE, 2013, enamel on metal ©MARILYN MINTER

The power of Minter’s work is that it always resonates on two levels, surface and depth. It is keenly aware of the power of the image to seduce and entice, yet forces the viewer to go deeper, into the social and political underpinnings of contemporary culture and our experience of imagery. With the astute interpretation of our deepest fantasies, impulses, and compulsions, the work serves society’s expectations of women’s bodies back to us but amplified. Mixing glamor and grit, the gorgeous and the grotesque, Minter is a trailblazing artist set on reclaiming female sexual agency. “I’m not preaching to anyone,” she tells me. “I have a vision, and I have no choice but to put it out there.”

POP ROCKS, 2009, enamel on metal ©MARILYN MINTER