The Linder Sterling photomontages on display at Kettle’s Yard have about them the white-hot anxiety of fashion, which the next cool thing is always pushing from behind. The sixty-something Mancunian artist was a fixture of her city’s underground scene in its punk and post-punk guises; her works convey both the icy charm of the avant-garde and the futility of its faddishness. She is the most emotionally engaged British artist working right now.
By cutting up and combining pictures, photomontage confesses the falsity of image culture and turns things into symbols. Linder’s iconography is thin: porn scenes, household appliances, microwave puddings, garden flowers, grinning mouths. This narrow stock of imagery suggests personal obsession, but before you psychoanalyse, have some fun. One depiction of a Seventies dinner-party salad with eyes substituted for mushrooms and mouths for sundried tomatoes is irresistible. Another montage suspends a teacup in midair while two beefcakes hump in the background. The daftness of these works beguiles.
But there is a touch of anger in the laughter. Linder is an old-school northern feminist, and montages of pornstars with their heads replaced by ironing boards or blenders evoke the strains and absurdities behind the feminine mystique. How much freer and happier are the Manchester drag queens and party girls parading their hairdos in her black-and-white snapshots, which bring a refined feminist fervour to bear in the service of the northern underground. A giant photographic self-portrait radiates wit, self-possession and no-nonsense femininity.
An unending turf war between earnestness and fun electrifies Linder’s art. Yet all her you-had-to-be-there romanticism about the Manchester avant-garde did nothing to stop the underground’s death from affluenza. Hungover irony pervades her works as seen in 2020. The cut-out appliances, desserts and hairy hunks appear nothing so much as dated. They were once cool; now, like Linder’s chum Morrissey, they are anything but. The mood is not so much post-punk as post-coital.
Trends come and go like a boat tossed about by every wind of doctrine. The ageing Linder ends up marooned, tranquil and alone, on the only visible constant in her life: herself. The unending interest in porn intimates a cool interrogation of private trauma. Linder has revealed that when she was a toddler, her pervert step-grandfather would show her hardcore smut of the kind she now uses as artistic material. Fashion fades away; neurosis endures. Linder uses flowers to cover up genitals, provoking erotic imagination and evoking childhood innocence in their transience and fragility.
It gets a bit heady, and a bit stagnant. Linder’s main advances tend to be technical rather than creative: later photomontages show a keener eye for composition, but little more. She has some fun with ‘mantic stains’, smears of enamel ink pioneered by the forgotten Surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun. They are pretty, recalling pinned butterfly wings and with them the lepidopterist Nabokov, whose writing predicts most of Linder’s artistic moves – feminism aside.
There is a sense of flailing post-post-punk desperation, of the underground’s cutting-edge going blunt against Linder’s immovable obsessions. Stuck to a meagre symbolic diet, it is a matter of time before her satirical teeth fall out. And then they do. All the cut-and-paste deliberation vaporises in an explosion of personality asserting itself as art. Through self-photography, Linder herself appears resplendent in bouquets and hairdos against the dullest of suburban or colour-field backdrops. Self one, world nil.
Glorification de l’Elue (2011) has Linder drenched and glistening in primary-colour paint; slick red slides over icy blue and sunny yellow in a rhapsody of expression and inexpression. But look at her tilted head, her shut eyes, her open mouth, with their suggestion of agony or rapture. Through the alchemy of the human heart, Linder at last transmutes irony into pathos.