In an interview with Morrissey in 2010, the British artist and performer Linder Sterling claimed that she saw art as, ‘the conversion of a personal experience into a universal truth’. This perception was central to her talk for the CSCA on 17 January in the UCL Department of History of Art. An outspoken feminist and key figure within the 1970s Manchester Punk movement, Linder is best known for her photomontages that remix images from pornography and glamour magazines to address conventional depictions of women. Linder’s work has been influential for punk feminism and continues to resonate amongst newer generations of women. Her discussion, however, focused on her artistic practice, providing a refreshing insight into how discourses concerned with femininity have influenced her artistic identity.
Growing up in the swinging sixties, Linder began her talk with a photograph of ‘Beatle-mania’ – a large group of manic Beatles fans – through which she described the pivotal role that television and print-culture have played in her life. She claimed that watching predominantly female Beatles fans and listening to their squeals of excitement on the television sparked, in her, a certain critical curiosity. Instead of being courted, the female Beatles fan, as a type, rejected passivity by actively pursuing the object of her sexual fantasy. The shock-effect of Beatle-mania coupled with Germaine Greer’s book The Female Eunuch (1970) and her ‘Cuntpower’ issue of the counter-culture magazine Oz, the same year, further informed Linder’s political assertiveness. Stereotypical notions of women’s roles in society were being contested at the time of Linder’s early photomontages, which evoke fearless feminist effrontery. Controversial women have evidently been at the core of Linder’s art and her most recent work is no exception.
During her Tate St. Ives residency, Linder explored the recently discovered archives of the Penwith Gallery that had been founded by a group of Modernist artists including Barbara Hepworth. Revealed amongst the archives were the minutes of meetings of the gallery founders, which included discussions on the themes for the annual Penwith Arts Ball. Linder became curious about lesser known artists who were excluded from the St. Ives Modernists, particularly Ithell Colquhoun, an artist and writer, who refused to join that elite circle. Colquhoun’s essay, ‘Children of the Mantic Stain’ (1952) fascinated Linder as she recalls, ‘when I heard that title, it sounded quite Marvel comics, about a mutant gang in Ohio. I had to make a work and steal that title. I think I steal images, but often texts too’. Colquhoun’s artwork is mostly comprised of embellished enamel stains that were created through a process of entering an altered state of consciousness. Given that Linder was suspended from school for conducting a séance in the girls’ cloakroom, her fascination with disjunctive states of consciousness is not too surprising. Taking inspiration from Colquhoun’s work, she delved into the notion of ‘staining’ an environment, where movements has a mantic quality and sound becomes simultaneously ocular.
Linder recently gained access to a flat above Raven Row Gallery in East London that was once owned by the Levy sisters, a vaudeville dancing troupe. Preserved since the seventies, Linder was captivated by the flat’s carpet and she wondered whether she could liberate it from its horizontal plane and animate it a nostalgic and hallucinogenic way. With the help of Edinburgh tapestry studio Dovecot, she combined the patterns of the carpet to create an immense cobra-like rug, swirled with psychedelic prints and containing glam-rock eyes, backed with gold lamé (informed by the gold lamé suit worn by Elvis Presley and Billy Fury). Having made the rug for the British Art Show 8, Linder worked in conjunction with the Northern Ballet to choreograph an accompanying performance entitled ‘Children of the Mantic Stain’, during which the rug unfurled and became an additional dancer. In the same way that the rug combined different patterns and material, the ballet interwove Linder’s diverse threads of research. Imagining the meeting of Hepworth and Colquhoun during the 1956 Penwith Arts Ball, it simultaneously explored how an environment is ‘stained’ through one dancer’s choreography, mimicked and extended by the other dancers, whilst the rug unfolds and intertwines around them like an intoxicating trance.
On the question of how the ballet evolved out of her photomontages, Linder said: ‘Cutting out images and trying to animate them is a purely imaginary exercise – I see those images dancing off the page’. One could argue that like Linder’s photomontages, ‘Children of The Mantic Stain’ is not only deconstructed and interfered with, but also evokes the essence of anti-professionalism and anti-tradition that Punk thrived on in the 70s. ‘In its purest form, it came and went very quickly,’ Linder says of Punk. ‘I am still waiting for that moment to step forward again’. It is questionable as to whether the purest form of Punk, especially feminist Punk, will reemerge in the complexities of current feminist discourses; where becoming part of an establishment is pursued by millennials through social media and where anti-tradition is adopted and mimicked by institutions. One could argue that the reason Linder’s photomontage monsters and her intoxicating performances still resonate with a twenty-first century narrative is because they highlight what is currently waning; an alternative, critical voice that goes against the norm.
1. Morrissey in conversation with Linder Sterling, Interview Magazine (March 2010): http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/linder/