Naughty and Nice

John Haber
in New York City

Marilyn Minter, Fernando Botero, and The Gold Standard

What happened to art as a thing of beauty? What happened to art taking study, practice, and skill? Those twin conservative complaints come often these days. One could almost forget that they have little to do with one another, other than as nostalgia for a definition of art that long ago ceased to exist.

One could almost forget, too, that those concerns are alive and well. Intricate gallery installations, assemblages of found materials, or outsider art can take considerable attention to detail. Artists who once astonished me with the perfection of their brushwork may now lose me entirely with their grasp of new media, and I say that as one who programs this Web site.

Somehow, realism, wonder, and desire have persisted throughout Modernism and into today. Even before Freud, however, that often meant recognizing the naughty along with the nice. Maybe too late for Christmas, but at least in time for Valentine's Day, some artists today want you to know which is which. And is it shock art yet? Marilyn Minter's Mudbath (Salon 94, 2006)

As 2006 draws to a close, several shows turn that theme of naughty and nice into a stern lecture, even as the artists eat up every moment of degraded pleasure. While half the art world troops off to Miami Basil, Marilyn Minter examines the public and private parts that they had left behind. Fernando Botero discovers almost the same erotic rituals in Iraq, while Trevor Paglan trains his camera on the perpetrators. Just to make everything crystal clear, P.S. 1 devotes an exhibition called "The Gold Standard" to the degrading spectacle beneath a glittering, golden surface. However, much of these postmodern lessons has a curiously post-feminist subtext as well.

The latest dirt

I know. I should have been reporting from Miami, like all the really cool, influential art critics. Besides, everyone but me is having so much fun. However, time and expense aside, I have already inundated myself and you with art's commercial miracle. Take Chelsea each fall and New York art fairs competing with the Armory Show each spring. Besides, I like the thought of holding art's dirtier temptations, for once, slightly out of reach.

Marilyn Minter does just that—or, rather, one version of her does. At the Whitney she offered a metaphor for the entire 2006 Biennial as a tease. Above and slightly behind the entrance hung one of her glossy paintings, and another lay off in its own world within. Each abruptly cut off just one glittering fragment of a female body, a leg or an eye. The female gaze does double duty many times over, much as for Ellen Berkenblit in nail polish: it identifies a woman with surface but defines the world's surfaces with precision, it tempts a male gaze but stares right back, and it mime's a male dismemberment of her body but keeps the parts at a provocative distance.

Minter has an even nastier version of the same game, however, at her gallery. She thrusts her new work in one's face. It hangs at eye level, emphasizing its scale, its proximity, and all that it cuts off. The film noir luster of enamel on metal might teach even Judith Eisler a thing or two. Photorealist paintings fall amid equally large photographs, and they dare one to know one medium from the other. If anything, the photographs stand out by a greater blur, but then one expects no bit of stony irony unturned.

Her latest subject matter, too, gets that much more in your face. Hot red lips explode into beads of moisture. They nibble on icier beads that, she assures us, are diamonds. High heels dive into mud. Unlike at the Whitney, too, the works defy male lust while elevating female desires, and both appear equally filthy. They resemble Mary Gaitskill's parable of fashion, in the novel Veronica, as fatefully degenerate and completely seductive.

Perhaps only a pre- or post-feminist woman could buy into that morality play. When it comes down to it, Minter's dual M.O. also replicates old roles—as tease and humiliation, temptress and whore. For years, her harsher critics have had trouble accepting her slickness as willed, rather than shallow and self-indulgent, but these days she may seem to fit right in. I myself feel the way I do about Gaitskill's morality play or, for that matter, D. H. Lawrence's earthier proclamations. Sure, if one believes them, they may sound deep, and if one does not, they may sound obscene. I prefer to see them as impressive exercises in style, and if her shiny, high-priced objects happen to elicit art, desire, self-awareness, or a critique of capitalism, fine.

Annoyingly, the gallery itself plays hard to get. The room's seductions supplement Minter's, with a huge curving window onto a garden, gently expanding the already impressive interior. Moreover, the Upper East Side brownstone has no gallery sign, hides its buzzer well, flaunts its spy camera, and refuses visitors outright on Friday or Saturday. Once again, for all Chelsea's commercialization of art, the fringes beyond Chelsea are doing even more to treat art as a product for insiders and the gallery as a private club. Naturally, when I finally made it inside, the proprietors were in Miami.

Just the fats

If Minter imagines fashion as a grisly erotic theater, Fernando Botero sees torture much the same way. For a Muslim at Abu Ghraib, a dog meant impurity and degradation. Here the dogs, large as a man, have broken from their leash. They bare their teeth and leap at the prisoners, leaving the savage marks of their claws. Whereas American guards forced their actual victims into a human pyramid, here men pile on each other with a vengeance. Some have green flesh, as if the impulsive violence will not cease with death.

The erotic rituals, too, extend beyond the news. Some men wear bras and g-strings along with their blindfolds, and some wear nothing at all. The ridiculously obese figures, Botero's trademark, make it hard not to dwell on flesh. The painter seems to find the same erotic charge in their blood-soaked robes as in their ruddy complexion, and he uses warm tones for neutral backgrounds as well. Up close, even the claw marks or the sticks shoved up a fair number of rear ends dissolve into ripe brushstrokes. Perhaps the green men hint at a second gender, like the serpent who legend considers Adam's first wife.

As for the theater, Botero constructs his scenes like stage sets for what Exit Art has termed "Love/War/Sex." Some define narrow spaces parallel to the picture plane, between cell bars and the picture plane. Others heighten the perspective of a prison corridor, like plywood scenery. They call attention to one difference between these oils and the infamous photographs. That young American private posed with her charges, like postcards from a summer vacation. The Colombian painter stages his events for the instruction and delectation of the viewer, starting with himself.

Critics have hailed this show as an unexpected achievement. Botero, now in his seventies, has gotten endless mileage out of his porkers, but rarely much respect. He plays the eternal schoolboy, still finding male and female bodies more than he can handle. Maybe in art school he could not get over his shame at the pleasure he took in the fleshy nudes of Titian or Peter Paul Rubens. Like Andres Serrano immersing Jesus in piss, he presents the bad stereotype of an adult eternally rebelling against his Catholic upbringing. Now, however, Botero has taken on something serious.

Instead of inflatable toys, his subjects look palpable for a change, and his palette deepens and softens as well. Instead of dressing people up for an evening on the town, he strips their hopes away. A triptych invokes the more respectable theatrics of Francis Bacon, and even the heavy-handed exaggeration helps translate for a jaded viewer what Western justice meant to a Muslim prisoner. However, the show's interest lies just as much in the tics that a flawed artist cannot leave behind. Botero does not have the power to shock, to frighten, to tease out the implications of appropriated images, or to argue directly with loaded political events. Rather, he still takes guilty pleasure in what he sees—only this time he obliges others to question whether they do, too.

The show's notoriety, like the weekend crowds unusual for a midtown gallery, marks a turning point. Artists once blasted in the tabloids, such as Amy Wilson, merely had poor timing. After the 2006 elections, it has become safe to doubt the purity of America's motives—and to make art about the fact. Trevor Paglan outdoes Geraldo Rivera in stumbling on wartime secrets, and if I have reservations about his artistry, I have none about his journalism. Through a combination of patient detective work and a very long lens, he has photographed and videotaped CIA installations, along with signatures from the phony identities that help to hide them. The casual compositions and interchangeable airplanes speak more of anonymity and, frankly, boredom than fear, like that point in Syriana when I gave up pretending to follow the plot. However, I left fascinated at whether the artist had made up the whole thing or, more likely, events have lost me once again in a disturbing haze of desert heat.

Them thar hills

Already unsure whether to go shopping or strip naked? Unsure, too, whether to blame America, capitalism, or yourself? And what did happen to the beauty that only a connoisseur can know? For those needing answers, this same December a museum has placed gold on display. Hands on the buzzers, kids. Now, which museum, and why?

Is it the Met, bringing the treasures of ages past to ever-larger holiday crowds? Is it the Guggenheim, catering once again to the fashion industry? Is it the Whitney, bringing back the subtle art of Minimalism as kitsch? Is it MoMA, sternly separating modern art's gold from the dross? Or is it a postmodern lecture on your petty bourgeois values in so much as imagining those?

Since "The Gold Standard" runs at P.S. 1, I suspect you got that one right. Gold covers a skull, a wastebasket, shards of pretend flesh, the Ku Klux Klan, Jack Ruby, and a gilded cage. It outlines Marilyn Monroe twice, as Sturtevant and Louise Lawler—appropriation artists at opposite ends of the room and a generation apart—debunk Andy Warhol and Warhol's influence. Two different necklaces bearing discomforting charms reach alarming proportions, so that they appear as heavy, confining chains. The curators describe gold here as an "apparition," an "implosion of the signifier and signified," and a "surrogate for itself." In plain English, things are not what they seem, but the art will make one wish they were.

A different exhibition could include fashion objects gone wild or a pretend period display. It could pun on gold's equally valued but more mundane purposes, as a conducting metal for a high-tech society. A more entertaining display could question the distinction between art and craft, the authority of museum displays, or the materialist side of the virtual world. Still, I hear the curators thinking, that might rouse just a little too much desire for a costly apparition. P.S. 1 has something darker in mind, as in a dark video room even before the exhibition's entrance.

Back in 1985, Alfredo Jaar shot what looks like a languid, endless procession through exotic territory. In reality, he shows the Third World origins and costs of First World precious possessions. And things get nastier after that. More often, however, P.S. 1 never really does unleash the chain of signifiers—not even the gold chains. By its very earnestness, the show crushes its own postmodern message. While a signifier may point to the wrong signifieds, its meanings quickly become more fixed than ever.

I admired most the exceptional pieces that play fast and loose with gold's associations and its place in a work of art. With his cage, Geoff Oppenheim clearly knows a pun when he sees it, and Jaar makes labor at poverty wages both uncomfortably real and strangely distant. Jessica Diamond's word painting emphasizes the hand that wrote it, but its message remains strangely gnomic, right down to the capital letters of CLANG. Thomas Demand photographs what look like gold bars, but only because of his fantastic studio lighting and paper models. When Barry X Ball rubs gold leaf across gesso, he strips Western art from Giotto to abstraction down to bare surfaces. Elsewhere, I mostly missed my own warped desires.

BACK to John's arts home page

Marilyn Minter ran at Salon 94 through January 20, 2006, Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib paintings at Marlborough through November 21, Trevor Paglan at Bellwether through December 23, and "The Gold Standard" at P.S. 1 through January 8, 2007. A related review looks at Minter in retrospective.


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