This essay on Linder appeared recently in the Guardian.
“One name seemed sufficient.” Since the late 1970s, the English artist Linder has sculpted – or more accurately, in light of her signature photomontages, scalpelled into being – a persona and a body of work that are discreet as well as scandalous, earthy and visionary. At the heart of her work is a vexed idea of glamour, in its older sense of a sinister lure or spell – Linder’s art has long been obsessed with both the exploitations or liberating potential in contemporary media and style, and with certain ancient ritual scenes and personae culled from an occult or outsider culture. She is as likely nowadays to use images from pornography or advertising as she is to appear in person tricked up as a witch or medium, channelling energies from the material present or a deep spiritual past.
Born Linda Mulvey in Liverpool in 1954, she became (or invented) Linder in Manchester in the mid-to-late 1970s, assuming punk’s “transformative plumage” – already an art-glam casualty thanks to Roxy Music, she was known to stalk the streets in Waaf uniform and red stilettos. She played a key role in the city’s aesthetic and political response to the galvanising arrival of the Sex Pistols in June 1976. To this day she remains best known for the posters and record sleeves she made for her equally punk-energised friends, Buzzcocks, the following year. But Linder, with her single and singular name and her unsettled sense of what “Linderland” (a later imagined rubric in which to corral her disparate activities) might contain, has been many artists: photomonteur indebted to Modernism, musical conduit from 1970s feminism to art-inflected post-punk, collaborator and adviser, too often dismissed as “muse”, for others such as Morrissey and Magazine vocalist Howard Devoto, latterly contriver and often star of shamanic and gruelling gallery performances.
In the past decade, so much of Linder’s early art – including the well-known Buzzcocks collages that had been languishing in under-the-bed boxes for years – has been the subject of numerous gallery shows. The early work is installed permanently at Tate Britain and was lavishly reproduced for a 2006 catalogue. It has also ghosted a good deal of her later photomontage and performance. For all her mercurial shifts of medium, genre and self-definition, Linder’s career has been remarkably of a piece. An exhibition earlier this year at Stuart Shave/Modern Art in London (a substantial retrospective show is to follow at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in the autumn, and she is currently in an Arts Council England touring show of collagists), revealed an artist bringing her imagery luridly up to date while maintaining an unmistakable style and texture.
Here were large-scale photographs (displayed for the first time in lightboxes) of her latest montages: originally hand-spliced (then rephotographed) juxtapositions of images from contemporary porn magazines, pictures of cars, cosmetics and accessories from more mainstream magazines and queasily close-up photographs of food. The bodies, objects and surfaces were recognisably 21st century, but details and composition seemed oddly out of time, not least because the imagery was excised from print magazines and not from the internet, but also because the completed works so readily recalled Linder’s first photomontage experiments. Her pairings of different types of consumerist desire, which once declared themselves as critiques of misogynist objectification, are now equally a part of an abiding artistic practice. For example, looking at a particular conjunction of mock-ecstatic porn performers and ornate confectionery, we get the “message” but know too that we can only be in the obsessive, repetitive world of Linderland.
Some of Linder’s recent work explicitly recalls the visual environment in which she first took up her scalpel and a stack of magazines. One series brings together photographs from 1970s men’s magazines, with their suggestions of framing narrative around the central act of revelation or performance, their distractingly busy decor and (so it seems in comparison with the contemporary images) unnecessary props and other complexities in the background. Photographs are less sharp, colours muddier, models less airbrushed. (The temptation is to say also less alienated, though this is no doubt a lure of such vintage imagery in general.) Considerably more alarming was a series of photographs of Linder and an American gallerist accomplice covered in a wild array of gloopy, dripping colour; in one image, only the artist’s eyes were recognisable, such was the quantity of what seemed to be viscid pigment. It turned out to be a selection of various foodstuffs – custard, rice pudding, raspberry sauce – and the photographs an antic reference to, as Linder puts it, a very English type of pornography. “Splosh” fetishists are typically somewhat sadder creatures than these – the whole thing smacks abjectly of the nursery – but Linder and friend looked like glamorous aliens or a kind of deconstructed Leigh Bowery.
By the late 1970s, Linder was already considering her photomontages as creatures of a sort; she has spoken of the process of cutting and splicing as, “performing cultural post-mortems and then reassembling the corpses badly, like a Mary Shelley trying to breathe life into the monster”. Equipped with a sheet of glass, glue and a Swann-Morton No 11 scalpel, she emerged from Manchester Polytechnic, where she studied graphic design, calling herself a “monteur” and with certain key artistic influences in place. The political works of John Heartfield and George Grosz were crucial, though in its ambiguous critique of modern glamour her early art was also indebted to the prewar montages of Hannah Höch, with their alluringly odd redeployment of magazine images. As an adolescent in a house with few books, Linder had been politicised by Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and by the mid 1970s Spare Rib was her “Bible”. Avant-garde aesthetics and feminist politics now combined to produce an art of fearless effrontery.
Her cover for Buzzcocks’ Orgasm Addict is merely the most notorious image of this period: a naked woman’s body brutally topped with a Morphy Richards iron where her head should be and grinning lipsticked mouths for nipples, neatly complementing the song’s tale of mechanically compulsive sex. (Subsequent exhibitions have revealed that the black-and-white sleeve image was originally in lurid colour, the faceless body oiled and glistening.) In a stark and amusing appraisal of the conventions of top-shelf misogyny, Linder’s early montages depict soft-porn scenes invaded by the shiny tat of domestic technology – Super 8 cameras for heads, vacuum cleaners for genitals, a young woman in a photo-romance clinch stabbing herself in the eyes with a dinner fork. Some of these images were made for the Secret Public, the fanzine she contrived with the music critic Jon Savage, whose own more laconic montages look now like remnants of earlier pop art rendered bleakly up-to-date by the influence of JG Ballard and the Situationists.
In 1977, Linder formed a band, Ludus, with guitarist Arthur Kadmon, who was later replaced by her long-time (and current) collaborator Ian Devine. Ludus played a fretful and subsequently jazz-inflected post-punk, their singer’s playfully stentorian vocals (which Morrissey admired, and in part mimicked a few years later) describing vignettes charged with the sexual politics of the time and occasionally veering into ecstatic screeches. For all their daring, songs such as “Breaking the Rules” and “My Cherry Is in Sherry” were possessed of a pop sensibility that might have seen Ludus thrive in the ambiguous era of bands such as the Associates and (slightly later) the Smiths, but Linder’s persona was too restive. Among her last gestures before she and Devine split was an astonishing performance at the Hacienda in Manchester, on 5 November 1982. Video footage shows the vegetarian singer wearing a dress made of discarded chicken parts from a nearby restaurant and at the show’s climax ripping it off to reveal a shiny black strap-on dildo.
In some ways it is Linder the unruly performer who has returned in the past decade. As a physical presence in much of her recent work, she is no less formidable, nor any less conflictedly in thrall to the history and present potential of glamour, her own and others’. But she’s added to her intensively researched image repertoire an interest in visionary female predecessors such as the Manchester-born founder of the Shakers, Ann Lee and the subjects of early-modern witch trials. It’s this “hex factor'” as Linder puts it, that lends recent marathon gallery performances such as “The Darktown Cakewalk” and “Your Actions Are My Dreams” their dandy-occultist allure: Linder channelling mediums and beauty queens, ragtime performers and figures from magical English legend.
Montage, however, remains central to her art. The Arts Council’s collage show puts her in the presence of such disparate British artists as Richard Hamilton, John Stezaker and Grayson Perry, where her lacerating gaze seems more essential than ever.