Matt Minter’s “Makeup Applied” at Institute 193: Dreams/Nightmares/Reality/Artifice in Late Period America

Matt Minter, Makeup Applied, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches.

Matt Minter has been chipping away at the philosopher’s stone of American culture with images and sound broadcasting from his remote compound of Lexington, KY noticeably for almost two decades. From the mist of the mid nineties to now, whether it be one of the crucial players in the noise scene of Lexington in the culture mix of Freesound (a small cassette label in the 90s, master-minded by Ross Wilbanks, that captured much of the weirdo rumblings taking place in Lexington underneath the more obvious go big blue racing horses old south culture of Lexington), as a member of Hexose and a thousand other side projects, as a member of Hair Police (a band that would streamline and flex its muscles to bring forth Lexington-fried noise to a national/international stage), and all the imagery he’s concurrently generated humming alongside that white noise timeline of reality/unreality. Most recently he’s been the ringleader of the bad trip horror soundcape rotten core group, Wretched Worst, and with the album covers leaning ever and more towards stark blacks and whites and bare-boned graphic impact we arrive to his most recent body of work, collected into a group of eight uniformly sized and framed paintings (all 36 x 36 inches in dimension) on currently exhibit at Institute 193, along with a new zine of the same title featuring reproductions of all the work included in the exhibit, as well as bonus imagery from the same cycle, and a new t shirt for the Institute, based on one of the paintings in the show, “Sisters’ Secrets.”

Models sporting the shirt of Minter’s “Sisters’ Secrets.”

The title Minter gives to his exhibition offers a key to a door into the flesh of this corpus. We can imagine here the “makeup” is “applied” to reality to both obscure and reveal it. Whether as in the makeup effects to used to fabricate gore as artifice which uncovers the shocking metaphor such as in the horror film genre, or, alternately, as the so-called beauty products of the so-called beauty industry can be applied to obfuscate the reality and/or the the actual being at the center/underneath the “makeup,” that which we really are/and or can be, with all of our tools and distractions of obscuring reality replaced with the artificial/superficial, to such an extent we’re no longer sure what is which and where one begins and another ends. Be careful, or pretty soon your applications might be applying you, we might pause to reflect.

My objectives here as intrepid reporter among the wreckage on the battlefield of Minter’s aesthetics are two different approaches that I will delineate. The first is to place for the viewer whom may very well feel bewildered before the eyeball kicks on display, no fixed point at which to begin to see, among the damage, a visual “vocabulary” to approximate the language I perceive Minter to be speaking in terms of art history/context. And then to cross the same river twice, but with a magnifying lens hidden under the folds of my petticoat, I’ll bring forward one of the eight paintings from the exhibition, and take the viewer step by step through the looking glass, to see the collection through one image, to perchance allow the viewer to more easily engage with the remainder of the body of work represented by “Makeup Applied” on display as of this writing at Institute 193 (August 14 — September 26, 2015). Am I a trustworthy narrator, or like some protagonist in an Edgar Allan Poe short story, should I not be trusted at all? That is up to you, dear reader, to decide.

Johnny Craig’s infamous cover for Crime SuspenseStories vol. 22, Apr/May 1954.

Much of Minter’s aesthetic DNA (as does the visual DNA many American graphic artists/cartoonists/illustrators from mid 20th century to now who operate on the underground/satirical/transgressive edge of American visual culture) can be traced to the 1950s when the subversive was on trial. Starting in 1953 under the umbrella of the Kefauver Committee, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was established (riding high on the fumes of Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book “Seduction of the Innocent”), linking both comic books (primarily those published by William Gaines under the EC imprint (both the satire of MAD helmed by editor Harvey Kurtzman and genre comics (crime, war, science fiction, etc.) perhaps most famously the horror genre comics under many titles such as Tales From the Crypt featuring art some of the best cartoonists of the day: Wally Wood, Johnny Craig, etc.) and also linking pornography (primarily the bondage and stockings fetish photography, motion pictures, and publications of Irving & Paula Klaw (most widely recognized for featuring the (now) iconic Bettie Page)). The Comics Code Authority, a self imposed set of standards by the industry itself to avoid government censorship, was established condemning an entire art form/format to be deemed only for children, to be scrubbed clean and presented fully sanitized for the protection of said demographic. MAD would avoid the censorship by switching to a magazine format (and continuing to, arguably, have influence on forms of American satire). The horror and other comics by EC and other pre-code imitators/competitors would disappear from the newsstand, and, with restricted pornography laws, Irving Klaw effectively went out of business, with those restrictions on pornography not lifting until the sexual revolution of later decades.

One of artist Basil Woverton’s grotesqueries on display for the cover of MAD, spoofing American institution, LIFE magazine.

We must also remember not to forget that Klaw’s publications featured the fetish/bondage illustrations/comics of artists both at the fringe of American culture and at the center of the 50s underground (and comics industry/culture) such as Eric Stanton, Gene Bilbrew, and Bill Alexander, the latter two furthering their outsider status to the wider American culture simply by virtue of being born with dark skin (and all three were friends and often collaborators). Bilbrew and Alexander were also involved with the west coast jazz and R&B scene of the 40s and 50s, besides. Bilbrew even sang, recording with the Basin Street Boys a version of one of this reporter’s favorite songs, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” and Alexander worked as illustrator for Roy Milton’s jazz label, Miltone (and if that’s not enough, Bilbrew and Alexander also co-created “The Bronze Bomber” comic strip for the Los Angeles Sentinel, featuring arguably the first African-American super hero).

Bill Alexander picture disc art for Miltone Records.
Leg art comics by Eric Stanton.
Fetish illustration by Eugene Bilbrew.

All three — Stanton, Bilbrew, and Alexander — worked on publications for Klaw featuring a kind of school or movement of underground fetish art featuring tropes of bondage and attention to legs/hosiery (contrary to the demure and “wholesome” norm of “adult” imagery of the female form as as exemplified in the era most obviously by Hefner’s Playboy Magazine). If the risque of the Playboy aesthetic was tolerated in American culture, the comics/illustrations of Alexander/Bilbrew/Stanton not only rode the razor’s edge of subversion/perversion (deemed “delinquent” and de facto illegal by the U.S. Senate, no less), the women depicted, despite the bondage motifs, were no push overs, nobody’s idea of demure femininity, and the female identity was split between the more arch dominant and submissive of bondage tropes, whereas the male figures/characters, if depicted at all, were most commonly submissive to the female figure (again the contrary of the post-war “playboy” male archetype propagated by Hefner and his imitators).

Example of 3D erotic comics by Gene Bilbrew.

Alexander would grab attention doing paperback covers for the Star Distributors line of the erotic paperback books during the rise of that industry in the 1960s, as did the aforementioned Blibrew and Stanton etc. (that chapter of American publishing history, the rise and fall of the paperback original sex book market and its cover imagery, is a whole other topic; let me send those seeking more information here and here). That work would bring him to the attention of horror/exploitation publisher Myron Fass of Eerie Publications. Eerie in essense reprinted pre-Code horror comics that had fallen into the public domain(also touching up the original comics with even more gore as well as side stepping the Comics Code Authority, as did MAD previously, with its switch from a comic book to magazine format) with new eye popping over the top and largely under the counter color covers, many by Bill Alexander. Horror comics may have been mostly murdered by the U.S. Senate, but they never truly died, but rather became living death.

Eerie publication cover by Bill Alexander.

Meanwhile, an entire generation of baby boomer artists younger than the Alexander/Stanton/Bilbrew, weened on EC and pre-Code comics/comics in general and experiencing the disappearance from the newsstand of outre comics with the rise of the Comics Code, would grow up and take their revenge as adult delinquents. The Underground Comix movement of the late 1960s, typified by Zap Comix artists like Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, and Underground Comix preceded a few degrees with the proliferation of psychedelic posters and the artists who created them such as Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso, who themselves transitioned from posters into comics. The posters carved out a distribution system of the head shops then proliferating across the U.S. which in turn comix would utilize for distribution, making them as widespread, as emblematic of youth culture at the time as bongs and black light posters. Underground Comix had its explicitly horror wing, if explicitly bizarre/surreal emanation of the genre, best exemplified by artists like Greg Irons and the more brutally naive Rory Hayes. Whether the work was featured in radical, underground newspapers, tabloids, and magazines or album covers, for a brief window of time were popular enough to out sell the traditional newstand comics under the Comics Code, even Marvel and DC. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that local communities could judge their own First Amendment standards in regards to what was or was not obscene. In the mid-1970s, sale of drug paraphernalia was outlawed in many places, and the distribution network for these comix fell apart.

Cover art by Greg Irons for Dr. Wirtham’s Comix & Stroies, the title is a riff on Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of “Seduction of the Innocent.”

Just as Underground Comix and psychedelic posters seemed to fade on a whiff of smoke out the window through which a receding landscape of the 1960s could be observed, by the mid to late 1970s, the same notion of counter culture and alternative distribution would rise again with the work of John Holmstrom’s lowbrow comics and illustrations that would provide iconography for Punk Magazine and the whole punk movement’s inception as a New York mid to late 70s eruption, as just a few beats later graphics of Gary Panter for the influential SLASH magazine out of L.A., along with his own comics and album/poster art for emerging west coast punk bands, as well as Raymond Pettibon’s countless album covers and posters and micro publications mostly for SST Records. Not to mention the whole world of punk and metal, in the ever increasing ever explicit and less commercial subgenres of the forms, and the album covers to come by many other artists, all particles of the visual soup, one of many factors in the climate of the 80s, that had parents and church groups seeing devil worship in every teenager’s record collection. However major government or industry censure on obscenity, besides the activism of the PMRC and the introduction of “Parental Advisory” labels, became by the 90s something of the past. (Okay, well, there’s the case of Mike Diana, which goes back to the whole quagrmire of the “community standards” issue, but that’s, again, another whole other story.)

Raymond Pettibon drawing used for the cover of a “bootleg” collection of Black Flag demos.

It’s not that I’m saying that Matt Minter is influenced by every artist I have invoked, and I’m certain I am leaving out many artists he would cite as crucial influences on his conception of and approach to art, but in broad strokes I’m placing him within a continuing timeline of subversive American visual currents, especially in service to those viewers who might approach Minter’s work lacking fluency in an entire area of American art, the history of which has just recently, covertly and by snatches, begun to enter into the academy of American art, the official record, as it were.

Before I return to Minter’s current exhibition directly, it is instructive to pause and consider the influence of cinema, specifically the horror genre, to his work as a whole. In fact, Matt Minter IS a horror motion picture director, of a kind, if one looks at his videos (such as above: directed by Minter, photographed by Coleman Guyon), combining the auditory onslaught of his band Wretched Worst paired with moving images for the videos . The influence of the work of Italian giallo/horror directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento is strong in Minter. With the latter particularly there is much affinity from the prominence of female protagonists to the soundtracks by the macabre goes art rock approach of Goblins. Argento has famously said of the classic run of his films that the screenplays he writes specifically come from writing down his nightmares, which then evolve into stories. There’s a history of horror cinema/cinema in general that runs parallel to the history of outsider/underground comics/art which contains within it another narrative of codes and censorship that is not necessary here to recount in expansive totality. As the recently deceased American horror movie director Wes Craven said, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.” Minter in his art in all it forms employs scare tactics of his own.

Still image from Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, 1977.
Matt Minter, Promise Her Blood, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches.

Let us look at “Promise Her Blood.” What is going on here?

Let’s start with the figures in the image. The hooded disembodied male figure with knife in hand, as he adjusts the hood perhaps better to observe, with eye singular(more fixed maybe upon the female presented with a skull for a head), the two females , the females framed and connected by two symmetrical panels at an angle slanted. The isolated head of the female with flesh (framed sans body (as opposed to bare skull (with body)), comports herself with an expression enigmatic, teeth slightly bared, head tilted slightly back. Is it fear? Is it insolence? A bit of both?

Of course, as we scrutinize more closely the two females, very quickly we perceive it is not two different figures but the same character twice, with flesh and without flesh. A before and after or with body/without and/or simply seeing the same figure both with and without x-ray vision, and both/and/or all above a bit of double-vision.

Then, in observing the male figure prostate, head covered with a leather bondage mask and a skull placed where the his genitals might be, either obscured by the intestines and/or maggots (the visual cue Minter uses often to illustrate as a kind of shorthand for both decay and/or what is blocked in general by static (disembodied/disemboweled/maggots/intestines: where does the metaphoric decay begin and the literal decomposure end?)(and it might even be appropriate here to notice that the same cue obscures on the tips of the fingers not holding the blade at the same time as it obscures the the single eye of the disembodied hooded head)). One realizes that just as the female character is presented both with flesh and without, the image of the leather mask is mirrored by a corresponding bare skull for the prone, bondage masked male figure.

Note the eyes/lack of eyes in the leather mask are also obscured by this visual cue. Is the prostrate male figure regarding himself with his own death’s head? Or is the skull, in fact, his genitals/lack of genitals? Is the hooded disembodied head with one eye peeping in fact the same male character at bottom, or is he (or for that matter is he both/and) the instigator who has offered up this blood sacrifice or he himself the sacrificed observing the scene from some out of body perspective?

The knife’s blade, perhaps a priapic symbol of male violence/sexuality, tilts to the right, designed to mirror the tilt also of the whip of in the female figure’s hand, either at rest or on the verge of being cracked, an odd ambivalence (remember the enigmatic expression of the fleshy female visage), which in turn leads one’s eye to the masked male on the ground, with the blood dripping from the disembodied hood above (note corresponding blood splatter within the panel framing the female skull), in turn yet again taking our eyes back to where we started with the single eye from underneath the hood looking at the woman.

The painting creates a loop (or perhaps we see several loops within one larger loop)and we are at the center as viewer/voyeur. When we realize, perhaps most crucially, that we as watchers are being watched by the central female death’s head/whip-packing figure, it takes us off-guard, by surprise. I get the sense we better hope we (all of us/any of us) are promising “her” blood.

The manner in which the disembodied hooded male figure grasps the blade in his left hand with, two fingers and thumb extended, mirrors, in the Latin Church, the priest’s sign for giving absolution or blessing, meant to symbolize the Trinity, with the priest’s right hand, making this a kind of inversion, like an upside down cross, for example. (Could it be that the hooded, disembodied figure is absolving his own eye, or, closer to the bone yet: parodying absolution?) This reference is both grim and funny, working on the viewer on an almost subconscious level.

Christ Pantokrator mosaic, Ravenna, 6th century.

Make no bones about it, this is sophisticated (and subversive) symbology. This is often what strikes me about Minter’s work: what could be seen/read as mere exploitation under closer scrutiny the awareness arrives that we are being guided to regard an obvious, blatant structure in his images as we then further become aware just how many ways there are to actually see/read the image in its latent structures. The stark simplicity of the blacks and whites deceive the eye; there is no truly straightforward way to look at Minter’s work.

With Minter’s Grand Guignol reality principle at play (sex/death/horror/satire), these images are not brutal so much as they are about the brutal world, even a parody of the brutal world. What seems like shock value does have a value beyond shock. He presents images, narratives within the images, that beg the viewer to ask what is happening here, what is going on within the surfaces/surfaces structures, and why.

If we pull the camera back from the framing of the image in the art and see ourselves looking at it, we can ask these questions, shirk from them, or maybe look in the mirror, adjust our makeup and continue to delude ourselves or not that we, the viewers are not, in fact, the perpetrators, the monsters.

However, we can also comport ourselves in a manner in which it is our charge as human beings to confront that which frightens us. Otherwise, we might all end up in a mass grave of polite society, no more enlightened than any era past or present which has covered/currently covers up rather than resolves its conflicts.

There is no repression or oppression at work in Minter’s art, but rather depictions of/the violent exploding of repression or oppression, in fact, a manner of going all the way in to come out the other side free from bondage, what William Blake called the “mind-forg’d manacles.” Matt Minter is asking us to see clearly before us our own demons, our own nightmares, our own traumas, our own shadow selves, and we must question whether we really are the agents or the victims of whom or what we might think ourselves to be. To put it country simple: he is asking us to see ourselves.

The artist in front of his work at the opening reception for “Makeup Applied” at Institute 193,