It’s not every day you find yourself discussing vintage pornography over freshly squeezed juice with a woman old enough to be your mother. But this is how the conversation goes when, in a restaurant behind King’s Cross station, I meet Linder Sterling, the 65-year-old British artist known simply as Linder, as she prepares for a retrospective at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.
A self-confessed connoisseur of pornographic magazines, a source for her provocative feminist photomontages, Linder has amassed a stash of esoteric X-rated material, most of which she keeps in a storage unit in Morecambe. “The prices for vintage pornography are crazy now – almost overnight,” she says. “You could get something quite soft, like a Playboy from ’72, for a fiver. Then, suddenly, it was £30, £50. And you pay extra for anything niche – like tan lines. They’re a big thing now, because they’re nostalgic as well as sexy.” She laughs. “I’m picky. You have to know where to look.”
As we chat, Linder flits between subjects, in a soft, partly Irish, hard-to-pinpoint accent that she describes as something of a “montage” itself. She has, she says, been “nomadic” for much of the past decade, shuttling between various cities while preparing for a string of exhibitions. In 2017, surprisingly, given the explicitness of her work, she was artist-in-residence at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
One minute, she’s talking intently about a new series of drawings based on a character from Greek mythology who committed incest with her father; the next, she is bemoaning the “loss of craft” as the pornography industry has gone online. “A lot of the photographers in the Seventies had rigorous training,” she tells me. “So, the models were well lit, the composition was very beautiful, and there was always some attempt at a narrative. Now, it’s like, forget narrative – nobody has time. You can upload images within seconds. Whether it’s Spotify, McDonald’s, or pornography, we’re talking about instant gratification. Pornography is always a dark mirror [of the times].”
Is she this open with her 30-year-old son, Maxwell Sterling, a musician and composer with whom she sometimes collaborates on performance art projects? “Oh, yes,” she replies, smiling. “He’d be looking at you now, rolling his eyes.”
Having grown up in a working-class home, first in Liverpool (where she has been invited to make work for this summer’s biennial), then in a tiny mining village on the outskirts of Wigan, Linder turned to photomontage after moving to Manchester to study graphic design in 1973. She had always drawn incessantly, but, as she entered her 20s, and started going to early punk gigs, she became bored by her own “mark-making”, and swapped a pencil for a Swann-Morton surgeon’s scalpel and a pot of Cow Gum glue.
Reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch as a teenager had inspired her to become the only feminist in her village. She started cutting out images from magazines which irked her by perpetuating gender stereotypes, before gluing these scraps together in spiky, surrealistic combinations. In one, for instance, a pretty blonde model, embraced by a handsome man, appears to stab at her own eyes with a gigantic fork. Linder was anatomising popular culture, exposing its patriarchal tropes. “I made my early photomontages with the same curiosity as a mechanic lifting up the bonnet of a malfunctioning car,” she once said.
Inspired by the photomontages of the Dadaists, as well as by British artist Richard Hamilton’s Fifties Pop collages, these early pieces remain Linder’s best-known works. (Her show at Kettle’s Yard will, she says, include a gallery of “greatest hits”.) In part, this is due to one notorious example, featuring a naked young woman with an iron for a head and a pair of disembodied smiling mouths covering her nipples. It was reproduced, inverted and in blue, on an acid-yellow background, on the cover of punk band Buzzcocks’ single Orgasm Addict, released in 1977.
Linder has been linked with Britain’s punk movement ever since. Misty-eyed middle-aged men still sidle up to her at private views, she tells me, asking her to sign their copies of the record. The Tate, which eventually bought the original collage in 2007, describe it as “an icon of punk culture”.
Yet Linder is visibly frustrated when I ask her about it, and can barely bring herself to use what she refers to as “the p-word”. For one thing, she explains, her involvement with Manchester’s punk scene amounted to “only a year or so of my life”, and she’s tired of “sloppy” interviewers dwelling on this phase at the expense of others – such as the early Nineties, when she photographed her close friend Morrissey as he went on tour around the world. For another, she feels that punk has become diluted as an idea. She knew it was over, she says, as early as April 1977, when “my mother’s magazine, Woman’s Own, had a big feature about how to DIY punk [clothes] by cutting up bin bags for your daughter”.
“People have these received, cartoonlike ideas about punk,” she says. “But Britain in 1977 was Dickensian, rotting. None of us had a penny to spend.” In response, she once explained, her generation “started to cut things up – we cut up our hair, our coats and our magazines.” They were, she says now, “incredibly creative times. We all thought that something truly new had happened, there’d been this breakthrough.” She pauses. “But culture curdles.”
In the Nineties, she noticed that the so-called YBA generation – about whom her former partner, critic and novelist Michael Bracewell, has written extensively – “aspired to be as progressive and shocking as my generation had been: ‘punk’ in their audacity. But we were so poor and unsubsidised. Lots of us were on the dole. Whereas they were supported by galleries very early on.” The only thing she found “shocking” about the art of Damien Hirst and his peers, she says, was “the amount of money involved”.
As well as wielding a scalpel, Linder used to front her own post-punk group, Ludus. On Bonfire Night in 1982, four years before the birth of Lady Gaga, she performed at Manchester’s Haçienda nightclub wearing a black dildo and a costume decorated with raw meat: “Chicken heads, claws, and giblets, from this big bag of bloody stuff, which we pinned on to my bodice and skirt.” It was, she says, a “protest”.
It is striking that – aside from selling shows at London’s Modern Art, the commercial gallery that put her on the map, and solo exhibitions at the Hepworth Wakefield and Nottingham Contemporary – Linder is still relatively unknown in this country, despite a recent vogue for championing older, overlooked female artists.
I wonder if, still now, we Brits aren’t wholly comfortable with sexually explicit work made by a woman; maybe things aren’t so different from the Seventies, when she changed her name from Linda to Linder (in honour of the German Dadaist who, sick of anti-British sentiment in his homeland, anglicised his name to John Heartfield), “and people always presumed I had to be a man.”
When I ask her if she feels neglected, she calls herself “Linderella”. “Probably, I should have been more ambitious, and gone to the right openings,” she half-jokes. “I don’t give much thought to status.” Seriously, though, how does she account for her relative obscurity at home, when she has shown so prominently abroad? In 2013, she had a retrospective of 200 works at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
“I’ve never found the answer,” she replies. “Maybe in Paris, they look at my work differently – without all the baggage in Britain that it’s just punk ephemera.” Maybe, indeed. No wonder she’s sick of the p-word.
Linderism is at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (01223 748100), from next Sat until April 26