It’s Clear Why Monica Lewinsky Felt Safe Having Marilyn Minter Paint Her First Portrait

“Monica’s image has been used against her in awful ways,” Minter told Jezebel of her portrait of Lewinsky. “And I wanted to change that narrative.”

In Depth
It’s Clear Why Monica Lewinsky Felt Safe Having Marilyn Minter Paint Her First Portrait
Photo:Andy Romer/Getty Images

On the second floor of the LGDR gallery in New York City’s Upper East Side, six giant enamel-on-metal portraits by Marilyn Minter hang in a sunlit parlor. Gloria Steinem, Roxane Gay, and Monica Lewinsky’s faces take up one side of the room, creating a triptych of sorts. They’re not quite “past, present, and future” nor are they “maiden, mother, crone.” On the other side are portraits of Glenn Ligon, Lady Gaga, and Mickalene Thomas. While those three don’t harmonize in the exact same way, a through-line of individuals who’ve fought to work through their many identities—public, sexual, gender, creative—does.

Minter’s latest self-titled show opened on April 12 and marks her first foray into portraiture. It was also the first time Lewinsky and Gay ever sat to have their portrait done—an experience Lewinsky called losing her “portrait virginity.” At 74, Minter has built a name for herself with zoomed-in, larger-than-life photorealistic paintings of tawdry, hyper-feminine body parts: cherry-painted lips and glittered eyelids along with the blemishes, follicles, and wrinkles that make our bodies our own dominate her work. But where her past work feels like an excavation, these new portraits—of women whose likeness has been both misused and used against them—feel like she’s painting a protective orb around them. Almost as if she’s not trying to paint them, but something of a holy version of them—so they can be seen but not made vulnerable.

During the show’s press preview, Minter, who is enthusiastic and witty, told Jezebel she’s been quick to note that my generation (millennial), two or so below hers, have been much more eager to connect with her work. Older generations seem to feel “contempt for the glamour and sex” that she depicts and that that contempt “is based in fear.” At the beginning of her decades-long career, her embrace of pornography and erotic glamour was rejected by mainstream feminism. She was sex-positive during a time when the phrase didn’t exist.

“I make work about the times we live in. The beauty and fashion industries are huge engines of the culture, and this younger generation has helped to destigmatize our 20th-century conceptions of what a beautiful body is,” Minter later wrote in an email. “It wouldn’t surprise me if younger people find my work very normal.”

Photo:Elisabeth Bernstein

The first time I saw one of Minter’s pieces was at the San Francisco MoMA in 2005. I was 15 years old and her painting, Bullet—which featured red-painted lips drenched in sweat and biting a string of pearls—stopped me in my tracks. Smutty and lustful, the wanton painting reflected curious parts of myself that, as a young teenager, I hadn’t quite uncovered. Like searching for a word you don’t know exists but can sense the meaning of, seeing that specific piece felt like someone breaking through a fever dream and making direct eye contact with me.

Back at the LGDR gallery, Bullet was nowhere to be found. But the other three floors were full of Minter’s more recent work. In the corners of the gallery were working water fountains that played looping videos of hot pink licking lips and drenched and tangled hair on their surface. The top floor displayed photographs from her series, “Elder Sex,” which features aging bodies bedecked in lingerie embracing one another. Across from those photographs is a portrait of Lizzo, reclined on a day bed, her phone in hand. The piece is a part of Minter’s “Odalisques” series, a response to the prevalent pose of a seductive woman sprawled out, almost always painted by men. Except, unlike the subjected harlots throughout all of art history, Lizzo’s looking up from her phone as if to ask, “What do you want?”

Minter, whose work has been acquired by the Whitney, Guggenheim, and MoMA NYC, has a complicated and unique painting process. She starts by photographing her subjects through panes of frozen and fogged-up glass. She then creates a composite of multiple photographs in Photoshop to use as a reference image, which she then uses to paint with enamel on large metal canvases. She finishes them off with her fingers to soften the images with small smudges. The result is a multi-layered photorealistic image that seems like it’s lunging at you despite looking at it through a microscope. Her paintings are carnal and penetrating.

And her choice to include portraiture in this latest exhibit signals a zoom-out for Minter. Instead of an unfurled tongue or a hyper-focus on the dirt gathering beneath a blue-painted toenail, Minter is painting the full faces of people we instantly recognize. The grotesque glamour and intimacy of her earlier, iconic work is now replaced with a technicolor dreamscape that creates a bit of a barrier between us and her subjects. Hypnotic teals and purples swirl around their faces like a cryogenic time capsule of a psychedelic early ‘aughts magazine cover. That pullback, however, doesn’t mean these new works don’t pack the same punch. They absolutely do.

The portraits of Gay and Lewinsky, in particular, had me wondering what made these two women—whose bodies have been shamed and picked apart by the public—feel safe in Minter’s artistic hands. Was it the literal glass barrier protecting them? Did the layers their likeness would go through in Minter’s process distance the final portraits from their own self-image?

“Agreeing to sit for a portrait that would be considerably more subjective than a photograph was not the easiest ‘yes’ for me,” Lewinsky, who was already familiar with Minter’s “provocative, boundary-pushing work,” wrote in Vanity Fair. “For many years, my image was hijacked by paparazzi and political cartoonists.” Similarly, Gay wrote an essay about the experience: “As a writer, my work is on the page. I am not the center of attention, the object of anyone’s gaze.”

Photo:Andy Romer

“I didn’t know that before I approached them,” Minter wrote in her email, about it being Gay and Lewinsky’s first portraits. “Monica’s image has been used against her in awful ways, and I wanted to change that narrative.” In zooming out to depict these women, Minter allows for a space between our interpretations of them and who they actually are to exist.

Minter’s work asks you to consider the layers of identities—physical, emotional, and cosmetic—that women and femmes construct for themselves. “I approach all of my subjects with care and sensitivity,” Minter said. “The goal is to make a great painting that captures each person’s unique essence.” I’d add that this recent work not only captures a person’s unique essence but protects it as well. It’s why, I imagine, I safely saw my own burgeoning sensuality in her work at 15; why two women whose likenesses have been abused decided to sit for her; and why her embrace of the complexities of femme identity has only become more celebrated as society catches up to her vision.

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