October 24 – December 5, 2009
Marilyn Minter doesn’t merely use photographs; she uses them up. It is critical that for the past fifteen or so years the photographs have been hers to bleed dry: this part of her process contributes greatly to the overall cycle of creation and destruction that determines how her work is made as well as how it looks. It’s a vicious yet giving circle. As a self-identified “photo-replacer,” rather than the photo-realist painter she easily could have been (her early work confirms she had the talent for it), or (far, far worse) another trigger-happy downloader we absolutely do not need, Minter has made an important contribution to our image culture because she has kept her work both accessible and accountable while resisting absolutes.
Minter’s paintings are loaded with the ammunition of her killer eye. Their complicated enamel-on-metal surfaces enable her to perform a 180, turning around her own fetishizing to take aim at ours, despite—or perhaps precisely because of—their trafficking in the types of imagery, products, and social scenes from which we usually dissociate ourselves even as we partake of their collective passivity. In the twenty years that I have known her work, not once have I ever thought she sold it out: no matter how promiscuous it may come across on its surface, she’s never trashed her point of view to pander to ours. Even when I’ve not been convinced by a particular painting here or there, I’ve always appreciated the clarity of its painterly embodiment of her unapologetic ownership. Her work demands and resists our consumption, all the while substantiating again and again just what it is that makes paintings not like other things that are not paintings, even when we’re looking at one of her photographs. This does not mean that the photographs that Minter makes are not important, or should not be shown, or that the aim of her work is to reinstate painting to its rightful privileged position—anything but. In this exhibition, by presenting both next to each other, and alongside an especially compelling video, Minter proves she can even make exhaustion work for her, revving up the revolution(s) of her enterprise more than ever before.
Keeping in mind that this exhibition is in West Hollywood, Minter’s casting of the co-stars of the work is twisted yet brilliant: both Pamela Anderson and the disembodied mouth and tongue of a female model are perfectly contradictory embodiments of the type of muscular fatigue that can generate a lot of heat in this town. (I’m reminded, for good reason, of L.A. artist Larry Johnson’s description of the hustler’s first line of defense on the street: “You keep it moving, but you’re standing still.”) In these photographs and paintings, it is surprising, or maybe even shocking, to see Anderson minus her standard makeup, but Minter has not merely stripped everything away to expose some clichéd notion of authenticity. While “Unarmed (Pamela Anderson)” disarms her to the point of non-recognition (freckles!) even though she is looking right at us, “Pink Bra (Pamela Anderson)” (both 2007) pumps up both her skin tones and her makeup into something made more of bubble-gum than flesh (the slight blur of the C-print adds to the effect). In this image, Anderson seems barely able to muster the energy to open her eyes, which made me realize that only one of Minter’s paintings in this show (as opposed to the photographs) includes a depiction of such windows to the soul: in the well-titled “Wettest Pam (Pamela Anderson)” (2009), they’re completely closed as virtuoso representations of rivulets of water splash on her very much painted face.
The second star is no celebrity, but she (it?) steals the show, especially, it seems at first, in the now well-traveled video that was screened separately in the gallery’s second space. (Previous venues include Times Square as well as Madonna’s last concert tour, and it was also shown on a Sunset Boulevard digital billboard during this exhibition.) The mouth/tongue monster featured in “Green Pink Caviar” (2009) makes a scene as gorgeous and disgusting as the title sounds, a well-crafted mix of method (licking) and material (candy and cake decoration). It’s painting with tongues, and defiantly not an example of the “painting in tongues” approach found everywhere today; in other words, the video’s “push/pull” enacts the kind of absorption that once was found only in the creation/destruction perpetual motion machine of modernist painting.
This brings me at last to the two large paintings in this exhibition, “Orange Crush” and “Pop Rocks” (both 2009). Both feature blown-up images of the model’s mouth and tongue stopped in mid-swipe. Each is as large as a good-sized Jackson Pollock or a medium-sized billboard, associations that remind me that Minter’s paintings catch us between the rock of that modernist absorption and the hard place of postmodern distraction, trapping us in their weirdly grungy fingerprinted surfaces, something I’ve not yet found in, let’s say, a Gursky. They are the scene of a fantastic crime, blood and, guts included.
ContributorTerry R. Myers
is a writer and independent curator based in Los Angeles, and an Editor-at-Large of the Rail.