In the Cut: The Art of Linder Sterling

By David BanashOctober 19, 2013

In the Cut: The Art of Linder Sterling

Blum & Poe
September 12–October 26
Tuesday–Saturday 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
2727 S. La Cienega Boulevard

ONE DAY IN 1976, a then-22-year-old Linder Sterling was sitting alone in her room. In front of her was a sheet of glass, a surgeon's scalpel, and stacks of magazines. Half were women's lifestyle magazines and the other half pornography — two different worlds, one in which women are decorators and bakers, and in the other, props for male fantasy. However, with a few precise cuts of the scalpel, a woman's face became a blender or her genitals a gigantic oozing meringue, and this interrupted both fantasies. In these early, untitled works, the pornographic appetite is revealed as commodification, the desire for appliances and impossibly photogenic food shown to be so many kinds of eroticism. Linder's collages are not mere punk provocation or cheap surreal absurdity. She is far too precise and devastating for that. She vivisects collective desires, disturbing the smooth functioning of our fantasies about sex, gender, and the good life.

Linder, Untitled, 1977, collage, 32.9 x 21.5 cm. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

This month, Blum & Poe in Los Angeles has mounted a retrospective of Linder's work, from the collages of the 1970s to her new bodies of collage work, including The Paradise Experiments, Postliminal Rites, and Revolutionary Hardcore Formula. There are also glimpses of her recent work in photography, ballet, film, and performance. Most of Blum & Poe’s show is drawn from her major career retrospective Linder: Femme/Objet mounted at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris this past spring. Yet seeing Linder's work in Los Angeles brings out new resonances and makes visible her complicated influences from and attitudes towards Hollywood stars like Clint Eastwood; her connections to her source materials, like 1970s Playboy with its West Coast, soft focus haze; and marks the too often unacknowledged debts of contemporary media spectacle to her pioneering work.

As a student at Manchester Polytechnic in 1976, Linder was being trained for a career in commercial art as an illustrator or graphic designer. Her education promised a future as a technician of media fantasy, creating the very images that provoke her work. That was interrupted by the arrival of punk in Northern England. In June of 1976, the Sex Pistols played their first show in Manchester. That night, Linder met Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks and Morrissey, who would become one of her most important interlocutors and muses. Discovering that she was an art student, the Buzzcocks immediately asked Linder to produce work for their fliers and later their record sleeves. The collages Linder had begun in her room found a context in the violence and provocation of punk, though her work didn’t rest easily there. Probably her best known work is the early collage that become the sleeve image for the Buzzcocks' “Orgasm Addict” single, composed of a pornographic female torso, the head replaced with the image of an iron and the breasts augmented with mouths caught in frozen, advertising smiles. Compare this to the “God Save the Queen” collages Jamie Reid created for the Sex Pistols; his collage enacted violence on the body of England's idealized mother, the eyes blacked-out, the name of the Sex Pistols blotting out her features in the typography of a ransom note. Though admirably critical of the conservative ideologies represented by the monarchy and the insufferable pomposity of the Jubilee of 1977, its anger and aggression, as with so much punk culture, pivots on male violence against women. Linder's collage works against this. Rather than symbolic violence against women, her defacement makes clear that the subjectivity of the woman in the pornographic image was never there to begin with. Replacing her face with the iron is a forceful invocation of women's domestic labor as part of the price of gender relations; the smiling, twin mouths interrupt the male viewer's easy possession and introduce a castrating threat.

In 1978, Linder made a career-defining work that was published in the punk zine The Secret Public. The zine’s centerfold depicts a middle-class couple masturbating each other in a well-appointed living room, their faces replaced by the latest in portable televisions. Their roving fingers fondle remote controls that cover their genitals. A generation of punks and post-punks saw it as an emblem the new realities of media and consumer culture. In another, the face of woman is replaced by a gigantic pie about to be devoured by a man with bulging eyes and oversized mouth pasted over his crotch. The work is a scalding, witty critique of gender relations. Though Linder's work has evolved as she has grown — fronting a band, doing performance art and photography, creating installations and films — she always returns to collage, and it is there that she finds the critical perspective that animates all this other work.

Linder, Untitled, 1978, collage, 30 x 22 cm. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

In addition to much of this early work, the Los Angeles show includes almost a dozen new collage series created over the past four years. They take on fashion, the male figure in pornography, animal sexuality and mythology, and consumer culture and media. In the Magnitudes of Performance series, Linder focuses on the male figure drawn from hardcore pornography, but his phallic power is replaced by images of faucets, stereos, watches, couches, and other commodities of middle-class life. Here, Linder develops her earlier work, showing that male sexuality, too, is caught up in profoundly alienating deformations. Drawn from her earlier series, The Paradise Experiments, the figure of the rose returns in a dozen new collages and spills over into the profoundly affecting series Oh Grateful Colours, Bright Looks. For this series, Linder collaborated with photographer Tim Walker and fashion designer Richard Nicoll, staging photographs of the artist dressed in white clothes that at a distance suggest middle-class respectability but, viewed closely, reveal the costumes of sexual fetish play. Over her own image, Linder collages gigantic white and yellow roses. In the Pink series, Linder starts with images from a book about how to create advertising glamour, but she pastes in the shocking addition of a set of glossy pink lips that vibrate on the faces of these women. There is a move to the surreal in all this work, and nowhere more so than in her appropriation of a series of pornographic magazines each devoted to animal fetishes, such as Snake Lover’s Magazine and Transsexual Horse Lover’s Magazine. The images from these sources could themselves stand alone as readymades, but Linder collages in other figures of animals who gaze on this spectacle of human sexual desire or who gaze out directly addressing the viewer. As Linder frames this gesture in an essay for Annual, “in far older times, these same animals were also seen as instructors and approached with reverence, seen as guides for the soul incarnate.” By making these collaged animals witnesses to these fantasies of human animal sex, she recalls this mythic dimension, making the phallic snakes and horses suddenly shift into a gateway to something beyond human imaginaries. Instead of the animal as an allegory for human sexual expression, the collages take the animal’s perspective, demanding that we return to them as mythic guides. In the cuts of collage, the pornographic becomes the sacred.

Though Linder's work has not been recognized as widely as collage artists like Jamie Reid, her continued relevance is clearly seen in something like Lady Gaga's appearance in a “meat dress” at the 2010 MTV Video Music Award. It was Linder who created and wore the first meat dress at the legendary Manchester club The Haçienda in 1982, when she was fronting the band Ludus, a performance that is projected as part of the Blum & Poe show. Rather than the graceful cuts of meat on Gaga, Linder's dress was made from the scraps of a commercial kitchen and included fat, chicken heads and feet, and, as she puts it, “strands of some poor creature's flesh.” While she was performing, two other women handed out raw meat wrapped in pornography to the audience and tied bloodied Tampax to the bannisters. In a final crescendo, Linder stripped off her skirt to reveal a black dildo of gigantic proportions. As she recalls in her essay “Northern Soul”: “This was my retort to the Haçienda's casual and interminable showing of porn films. I finished singing the last song to absolute silence from the audience. It was Bonfire night. 'Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot.'” Unlike Gaga’s glamorous, but uncritical performance, Linder's work is about disabling and interrupting all forms of uncritical pleasure. Like the cut of her blade disabling the media image, her own performances also operate in the cut, severing the audience from its enjoyment, reducing them to silence.

In 2000, Linder became Clint Eastwood. Aided by make-up and special effects artists, she was transformed into “The Man With No Name” from Sergio Leone's film A Fistful of Dollars, reversing course after years of work that was obsessed with anonymity: unknown faces and bodies of the men and women torn from advertising or pornography. Using the Eastwood persona literalizes her revision of Freud's famous dictum: anatomy is not destiny. Linder not only queers Eastwood by inhabiting him, she cuts him together with Mother Ann Lee, the 18th century mystic and founder of the Shakers. Lee was born in Manchester, but is almost wholly unacknowledged in the city's official histories. Linder portrays her as “The Woman with No Name,” and invests the force of Eastwood's mythic masculinity and star persona into the utopianism and ecstatic practices of the Shakers, working to give them the intensity and aspirations of punk at its best. In the four-hour performance, The Working Class Goes to Paradise at the Tate in 2000, Linder as Eastwood/Lee performed with three bands playing simultaneously to enter into Shaker trances.

Linder, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero i, 2012, collage, 26.9 x 20.95 cm. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

The theme of trance and the manipulation of attention has become more pronounced in Linder's recent work. As she puts it in an interview with Girls Like Us, “In 1976 we had to make things quickly and cheaply to be heard [. . .] we were all so bored something interesting had to happen. Now we are all so terrified of being bored that interesting things don't happen.” This led to works like her marathon 13-hour performance Darktown Cakewalk. The extraordinary duration of such pieces cut into the time of our relentlessly connected world precisely so that something might open up, that something might happen to both the audiences and the performers in that space. Like her collages, this is the power of the cut.

Over the past four years, Linder has returned to collage with renewed energy, producing one remarkable new series after another. Her pornographic source material remains, as well her continuing critique of consumer culture, but in the most provoking of her new pieces gone are teapots and toasters, replaced instead by the bodies of animals, the convolutes of shells, and the exaggerations and complications of the rose. Linder's work operates like that of the the Surrealists, who were trying to cut their way through their culture’s repressions with their uncanny dream images so often drawn from their recent past. Linder uses the soft-focus, hazy images of the Playboy centerfold or the blunt, saturated colors of the glossy queer magazines produced in the 1970s as her material, reminding us how loudly porno-industrialists like Hugh Hefner assert sexual liberation and the end of repression as their goal. Linder's new collages thus reveal a problem with the commodified versions of sexual liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, showing how deeply mired it was in powerful fantasies, repressions, and aspirations every bit as intense as those of the Victorians.

Ironically, she achieves this insight by covering up what the images purported to show. The centerfolds glow in the California sun, or they recline in the theatrically lit sets, but their genitalia are collaged over with roses in blushing pink, deep red, or searing yellow, blossoms so gigantic that they push their legs apart. And not only women now, but men by concrete walls, or standing naked before pools proudly displaying the perfect rose hanging between their legs. The rose is an old symbol, but it is most importantly just that — a symbol. Almost natural, but not — the roses that Linder collages are taken primarily from the English “rose annuals,” lavishly and garishly illustrated magazines that celebrate the domesticated and profoundly cultured rose. Roses in myths and fairy tales, in slang, in the proverbial “English Rose”: what seems to be a flower is an object of pure cultural fantasy, something that would not exist without a vast history of human cultivation, just as our own bodies reflect all the fantasies and anxieties about sex our culture has developed. For Linder, pornography has never made sex or the body any clearer or less repressed, despite our nostalgic view of the 1960s and 1970s. If anything, it has deepened the confusion and the violence surrounding sex by claiming to overcome repression and to allow us to be natural.

Linder, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero x, 2012, collage, 27.5 x 20.5 cm. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

Of course all this explication misses something of formal force of Linder's work first and foremost. Though every collage is steeped in a polemic, they are also overwhelmingly graceful, elegant, balanced compositions that vibrate with energy. This energy comes from the way a teapot catches exactly the tilt of the head it replaces, or the precise angles at which an outrageously proportioned pair of lips meet the face, or how the intensities of the model's bronzed skin make the yellow rose rise up off the page. Linder’s images surprise and shock through the power of color and line, scale and composition. The friction of the concepts rides along on the overpowering frisson of the visual spectacle. 


David Banash is the author of Collage Culture: Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption (Rodopi) and co-editor of Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things (Scarecrow).

LARB Contributor

David Banash is a Professor of English at Western Illinois University where he teaches courses in contemporary literature, film, and popular culture. He is the author of Collage Culture: Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption (Rodopi) and co-editor of Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things (Scarecrow). His essays and reviews have appeared in American Book Review, Bad Subjects, Science Fiction Studies, Paradoxa, PopMatters, and Postmodern Culture.


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