John Ruskin, as any liberal arts grad will tell you, is famous less for being the defining voice of Victorian art criticism and more for the putative story of his wedding night: He gazed upon his bride’s naked body, saw her muff, and fled in horror. Ruskin died in 1900, but our own repulsion at and fascination with female pubic hair continues to mirror his. The human body holds myriad uncanny sites, but few are as contested or as overdetermined as the female mons. Hairy or bare, it’s rife with meaning, intrigue, and analysis. It’s also the shiny, glossy, four-color subject of Marilyn Minter’s glam new art book, Plush.
If you could epitomize the art world’s consensus on female pubic hair in art into a phrase you could paint on a wall, it’d go like this: RUSKIN LIVES! Like Frodo, like Morrison, like Che, Ruskin breathes life long after his expiration date. His long arm reaches from the grave, and in his hand, he clutches a fat hank of pubic hair.
Here’s the thing about female pubic hair: Ruskin, for all his reaction’s ambient misogyny, kind of had a point. You look at the long history of art, and there’s not a lot of hairy female nethers before the mid-20th century. Egyptian art and a few Greek pieces showed neat little stylized triangles on both sexes; medieval artists gestured toward male pubes but never showed female pubes. By the Renaissance, some male figures were adorned with decorous Roman curls, though most were bare. All women were.
Prior to feminism’s appropriation of pubes in the ’70s, three major moments define Western art’s feelings about female pubic hair, and those feelings are a tangled nest of shocking, obscene, entrancing, and a little gross. Francesco Goya’s demure La Maja Desnuda (1797–1800), a naked chick with a come-hither face and a tender shadow of hair between her plump thighs; Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866), the swain’s-eye view of a be-furred, truncated female torso; and Modigliani’s 1917 show of nudes, all reclining, teeth bared, luxuriating in their natural hirsute forms. Of course other artists had painted female pubic mounds aplenty, but these works were strictly pornographic. Indeed, what was most shocking about the Goya, the Courbet, and the Modigliani was their eliding high and low art. A chick’s pubic hair will do that to an otherwise respectable painting.
While most of art history looks askance at female pubic hair, Marilyn Minter invites you to get all up in these hairy snatches. Just as she’d previously done in her glossy, liquid photos of women’s lipstick-loved mouths, bedazzled high-heels in mud, gilded tongues, and glittered eyes, Minter simultaneously deconstructs and glamorizes her subject in Plush. These 70 photos capture the pubic triangles of several models of a variety of races, all women whom Minter paid to grow their pubes. Amassed in this book, these photos make the female bush into a decontextualized thing of glory. Like close-up shots of a luxury car’s leather upholstery, Minter’s photographs entice you to pet, to stroke, to feel, to rub your cheek against them — if they’ll let you.
Though feral and faintly menacing, there’s no Freudian uncanny in Plush. Which is kind of weird, actually, because Minter has arranged the photographs to pull you in, up, and to its subjects. This 9-by-12-inch book makes its pubes larger than life. They’re Brobdingnagian bushes, and given scale only by the cunning placement of hands — fingernails all long and painted acid green, milk white, Louboutin red, or Sunny-D orange — or the occasional errant piece of lingerie, these pubic triangles loom large. Trapped by steamy shower glass, shiny with lube, bright against chainmail, these pubic hairs gleam. They glisten. They skinkle.
As the camera moves closer to its subjects, the hairs turn kaleidoscopic. Standing tall and glossy, they’re nets, they’re barbed wire, they’re a winter wonderland. Minter brings the viewer up close and personal to a variety of pubic mounds: a flamey conflagration of firecrotch, a snowy billow of candy floss, a bristly jungle of pin-straight black filaments. The hairs seem to call, to wrap their tender tendrils about the viewer, to draw us in. Lush and delicious, these photos make you want to smell them.
“Fashion is fleeting. Laser is forever,” Minter likes to remind us on Twitter, but it’s not that simple. Thumbing through Plush, seduced by these pelts and Minter’s shiny, shiny style, it’s easy to forget how embattled women’s nether regions are. The rush to Brazilian waxing during the heyday of Sex and the City, media’s fretting over women’s decisions to remove their hair, and the inevitable backlash — might make you think that it’s a new thing, this will to depilation. It’s not, of course. Pubic hair, whether having it, shaving it, or showing it, has always been fraught with meaning.
In this post-porn, post–Karen Finley world, it’s easy to think that a book like Plush is just another whatever-whatever token of feminist self-determination and blah-blah-blah reappropriation of female representation. But remember that this July a London gallery removed Leena McCall’s Portrait of Ms Ruby May because it was “pornographic” and “disgusting.” The crime? A shadowed landing strip of pubic hair in the subject’s unzipped pants.
Ruskin lives, and he doesn’t quite know where to look. Marilyn Minter holds his head in taloned hands and makes him contemplate the infinite glory of the bush.