‘Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty’ at OCMA Nails the Artist’s Pathology of Beauty

You’ll need a shower after seeing “Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty,” the famed artist’s confrontational retrospective currently at Orange County Museum of Art. Obsessed with “the pathology of beauty,” her disconcerting paintings, photographs and films expose the way commercial imagery—much of it geared toward women—is used to seduce and abandon the market it’s targeted to. It’s ugly, erotic and dank work, even pornographic, presented by curators Elissa Auther and Bill Arning with a steady hand, a clear eye and zero apologies.

The trashy silver high heels and gold liquid streaming from the mouth of a black model outside the gallery hints at what’s inside, but it’s the C-print Black Orchid that leaves the indelible first impression. A woman’s face, eyes closed, dark lips open, teeth white, water dripping and drizzling down a sheet of glass in front of her—there’s haziness to her face, much like petroleum jelly on a camera lens obscures age lines, the wet a sexual, jizzy splash, a peep-show screen obscured by body fluids.

Inside, initially, the complete opposite: Minter’s black-and-white photographs of her mother from the 1969 Coral Ridge Towers series. Shot while she was in college, Minter offended the artistic sensibilities of her fellow students with her intimate imagery: her mother lying on a couch in a bathroom, smoking, applying makeup, wearing a wig, staring into a mirror as though an evil Disney Queen. We see age spots, hair in curlers, dyed eyebrows in a blur of movement draping her sockets like sleeping apostrophes, as if she’s become a ghost. The fragile, moving documentation was at the beginning of Minter’s career, and you can see her vision of the personal as political already there.

More recent photos and paintings use flashy, fully saturated, primary colors, done in the style of a glossy beauty magazine, adding something dark under the glamour. The most obvious is Vampire from 2004: jewelry hanging from a woman’s mouth, smudges of blood-red lipstick caught on several teeth, liquid dripping from one tooth, elongating it, the fang on a bejeweled Nosferatu.

Her documentary paintings bring us back to the muck and grit of the human body: armpit stubble, creases left in the calf from gym socks, a dirty foot in a designer heel, stray unplucked hairs on an eyebrow line, zits and blackheads. The enamel-on-metal paintings are meticulous in detail, most photorealistic enough to muddle the medium you’re looking at. 0x000APhotos of similar body realities are nearby, such as the C-prints of Armpit and the cringe-worthy Soiled, with its flicks of avocado toenail polish that missed their subject, adorning the nearby skin of a foot filthy enough to make even a fetishist nauseated.

When it comes to pornographic images, something often controversial in feminist circles that consider porn solely the male view, Minter is bold and assured. Her photos in a quartet of untrimmed female pubic hair, reminds us that adult women don’t have the smooth pudenda of little girls, the directness of that reminder enough to put off Playboy magazine from publishing the full series they had commissioned. Minter cropped the images for Porn Grid #1, #2, #3 and #4 from gay and straight adult magazines, making public blowjobs, foursomes and titty fucks a millennium before they became a dime a dozen on the internet. The quartet of paintings narrow their focus to the cock in the center, white paint dripping down the enamel on metal, as if they’d been masturbated on. Arguing that the light of day exposes pornography as something a little sad, crude and not terribly sexy, Minter’s images of fingered vaginas and white cotton panties pulled tight in between labia, simply underline that point, making things look uncomfortable and squalid. Her painting on the opposite wall, just outside the “adults only” section, Rouge Baiser, wickedly comments even further, with its uncapped lipstick, red bullet fully extended, as though an erection.

In the dozen paintings displayed from her “100 Food Porn” series, Minter uses carefully constructed images of fingers spreading the flesh of dead fish, skewering an ear of corn, pulling the head off a crayfish, or gripping an artichoke and removing its heart. More sensual than the “Porn Grid” series, it also uses dripping, ejaculatory blasts on the canvas, hilariously delivering its prescient commentary on cooking and cooking shows, a decade before foodie culture became its own fetish.

More subtly, it’s an earlier series of studies and paintings on the way to the exit that moved me the most. The stillness and solitude of her oil-on-canvas paintings and studies from the 1970s reveal her budding feminist consciousness at work. A meditation on mysterious spills, curled wastepaper, marbles or photos left on the floor of a kitchen, it suggests moments of continuous choice: Life as a never-ending dirty floor that needs to be cleaned or the confident ability to see life as it is and not rush to clean up the mess we’ve made of ourselves.

“Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty” at Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Open Wed.-Thurs. & Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through July 10. $7.50-$10; Fridays, free; children younger than 12, free.

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