Marilyn Minter, Oct. 17-Nov. 25, 1998, at XL Xavier LaBoulbenne, 504 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
Surrounded by the elegant paintings in Marilyn Minter's recent show, it was hard to believe that it had been eight years since the artist's work ignited something of an esthetic firestorm in the insular world of downtown art feminism. Back then, Minter (along with Sue Williams, Erika Rothenberg and others) was a born-again "Benglis believer" -- that is, she was a proto-post-feminist who was willing to both take it off and strap it on. Figuratively speaking, of course.
Her brightly colored pornographic images dripped, diddled and diced their way up and down the walls. They were exuberantly sexual, not only like porn, but also in a painterly way that is special to painting. But much to Minter's surprise, her new work was scorned by an art establishment that took a dim view of her wholehearted acceptance of smut as a tool for female emancipation.
By the postcoital '90s, Minter had turned to a more earnest subject. She exhibited some very unsexy photos of her aging mother in full makeup, typically, applying lipstick while staring vacantly in the mirror of her Florida apartment. Minter had taken these sad snapshots of a lonely, drug-dependent woman while she was a college student in the 1960s. They seemed to deepen Minter's relation to her art, adding layers of autobiography to the social commentary.
The new paintings are, once again, detailed works in enamel on aluminum, mostly of bodily closeups. Minter mimics smut magazines by zeroing in on specific parts of the body to magnify their fetishistic qualities. Several works depict sense organs, themselves extensively painted with cosmetics, in what are contemporary examples of the kind of artist's inside joke that animated Manet's paintings, for instance.
Several paintings draw a parallel between glamour and trauma. The bulbous violet lips in Frosted are not alluring, but rather appear detached and bruised. The painting Shiner -- an image of an eye surrounded in sparkles and mascara -- seems to rely only on the "simple" fetishism of the eye. But the title is a double entendre that points to a black eye, hidden underneath either the makeup or the surface of consciousness.
Other works note a conjunction between sex appeal and deformity. The cropped perspective of Downy at first suggests the bodice of a plunging neckline, but on closer inspection turns out to be the downy cleft of a woman's painted upper lip. The image is so abstracted as to resemble a mountain landscape. A similar strategy is used in Swan, an elongated image of a throat.
The most personal and poignant painting in the show is Checkered, which shows a young girl in a pink gingham dress. A wonderful raking light falls on the figure, whose head is cropped out. Still, she looks beatific except for the ominous position of her hands. The girl's fingers are clenched and the nails are reddened as if with blood. Is this more autobiography? Perhaps Minter is alluding to the struggle to wrest meaning from the matrix of the personal and the social.