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Marilyn Minter @ SFMOMA

The Body Horrific

It's no surprise that artist Marilyn Minter, whose current body of photorealist paintings seductively grace the austere walls of the SFMOMA, was influenced by Diane Arbus, that most lauded archivist of the macabre. In fact, Minter, while an undergraduate at the University of Florida in the 1960s, studied under the auspices of Arbus. Minter's eye for both eeriness and irony was blatant in her photographic documentation of her mother, an aging beauty and drug addict whose haggard demeanor was only matched by her cosmetic obsessions. Despite the imprimatur of her approving teacher, her classmates shrank at ungainly images like "Mom Dyeing Eyebrows" (1969), and the negatives were accordingly tossed aside by Minter for almost three decades.

Minter's work has a tendency to make viewers recoil, perhaps because of her distinctive juxtaposition of glamour and grisliness. Minter, whose paintings are based on her own photographs, pieces together commercial depictions of femininity by way of influences like early Surrealist photography, post-Warhol pop, advertising, fashion, and pornography. Depicting a visceral experience of femininity that is both an experiment in revulsion and treatise on the cult of beauty, Minter offers interpretations of the body that are abstract and violently devoid of narrative, which is suggestive of the fragmentation exacted by her original medium, the camera.

Essentially, Minter takes every cliché about desire and beauty there is and adds a few revisionist touches. The bodies represented in her paintings are both manufactured and subversive: manufactured, because they bear all the signs of unattainability (polished surfaces, designer clothing, expensive jewelry); and subversive, because all the markers of glamour are undermined by connotations of realness, i.e. bodies that often have a little too much hair or makeup, or are wrangled in acts of self-mutilation. While the polished surfaces of Minter's paintings are semblances of fashion spreads, they are often disrupted by images of manicured hands slicing into rude slabs of meat, or the yolky refuse of an egg dripping from a perfectly lipsticked mouth. The feeling that seems to be contained in her pieces is the queasy realization that flesh, desire, sexuality, and gender are products in much the same way as the cosmetics Minter's subjects use to mask their not totally concealable imperfections.

The new pieces are a stunning, shiny array of enamel on metal and chromogenic prints, all of which focus on a few select body parts, creating representations of the flesh that are slick and malleable. The remarkable thing about the pieces is that most, if not all, of them are virtually identical to photographs found in fashion magazines; the blurred lines between art and commercialism are purposeful if we view Minter's work as an exploration of desire driven by media images.

Minter's demonstrations of gender are often ambiguous. In "Treasure Trail" (2003), an extreme close-up of a belly button surrounded by a few unruly hairs, we are presented with the ultimate indeterminacy of gender in the artist's paintings. In fact, while Minter is specifically invested in standards of feminine beauty, it's interesting to view her pieces in the context of the current vogue of streamlined, hairless, perfectly groomed bodies that impinges on both men and women.

In Minter's work, makeup and jewelry work to highlight either imperfection or penchants for self-destruction and avarice. In "Quail's Egg" (2004), the refuse of an egg drips from a gaping, fire-engine red maw; in "Bullet" (2004), a similar vividly lipsticked mouth is stuffed with a string of pearls, in a lurid display of ornamentation and ritual pain. The cannibalistic mouth is a recurrent, fetishized image in Minter's pieces, as is the stilletto high heel. In "Strut" (2004-5), a bruised, dirty foot is stuffed in a Dior stilletto laced with diamonds or rhinestones. It's an iconic image viewed from a low angle, a larger than life paean to both pain and beauty.

Minter's pieces are excruciatingly beautiful, flesh-like surfaces that throb with sensuality, ugliness, and artifice. Ultimately, Minter's work is wedded to the uncertainty and anxiety that are inextricably tied to the same bodies that we associate with desire. It's a disquieting combination, and the artist deftly captures the fluidity and ambiguity of bodies that cannot easily be contained by standards of propriety and acceptable beauty.

exhibit runs through July 24.