Linder, The Goddess Who has Five Faces, 2019. Courtesy of the artist & Modern Art, London, © Linder
A new show brings together the two feminist artists for the first time, a dialogue of excess and material experiments in latex, flowers, seashells and flesh
It’s hard not to focus on the vaginas at the new Hannah Wilke and Linder exhibition in London; they dominate the clean, white space. A low plinth of ceramic sculptures full of pink labial folds sits near the entrance to the Alison Jacques gallery, their outlines echoed in the photos on the walls. Anonymous nude women hang in clusters, surveying the room. Among them, Wilke crouches and poses and lies horizontal, wearing her nakedness with ease.
Wilke, an American artist and photographer born in 1940, achieved both prominence and notoriety in the 1970s for various works including the S.O.S. Starification Object Series, a set of nude self-portraits in which Wilke’s body was modified by small, vulva-esque forms fashioned from chewing gum. They pitted her skin, resembling extra nipples or strange patterns of keloid scars until one leant in and noticed the distinctive crenellated shape.
“I chose gum because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman,” Wilke famously said. “Chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece”. The New York-born artist, who died in 1993, also experimented with other materials that could be manipulated into similar forms, including latex, erasers and porcelain, and explored different modes of juxtaposition (in one startling image, a wad of blue gum is stuck in the hollow of a tree).
Wilke’s work has been arranged in dialogue with the British photographer and photomontage artist Linder Sterling (born 1954), who goes by Linder. Also recognised for her startling feminist provocations, Linder’s photomontages (largely created from 2007 onwards) feature vintage images from Playboy and other 1970s and 80s pornography overlaid with cut outs. Yellow roses flower over women’s crotches while tanned breasts and legs emerge from seashells, their pearls and soft pink interiors bringing their own suggestive implications.
In other images, domestic objects transform the photo’s subjects. In Hedone (2012), a model’s naked torso is cut in half by a pan full of fruit. These juxtapositions create a sort of sexual farce: the usual lines of gaze disrupted, rendering each image far odder and more threatening. As Linder once observed, “I like to see how far I can ramp up desire within one image until it becomes grotesquely comic.”
Flowers, like chewing gum, can be distinctly vaginal (Georgia O’Keeffe might have hated those who suggested her up-close paintings of poppies and canna lilies had an erotic component, but it’s hard to overlook). In these works, there’s a fascinating, inverted relationship between the two forms. In Wilke’s work, chewing gum – the perfect symbol of post-war American consumerism, as fleetingly pleasurable as it is disposable – is melded into something that constantly reminds the viewer of the vagina. It migrates to other parts of the body, repeating and making explicit that which is usually hidden. It dresses Wilke’s naked form, and, in doing so, alienates it.
For Linder, the flower – an organic material, imbued with centuries of symbolic associations with delicacy and femininity – instead forms a protective armour. Pubic hair peeks out around the edge of an iris. A rose becomes a blooming merkin, refusing to reveal the titillating detail at its heart. It’s not just the artists choosing to engage with the fraught history of the nude woman as consumable object that makes their pairing interesting. It is their respective decisions to overlay and collage – to draw on other objects from the material world to make their uncompromising points about the interchangeability of women and things.
“All of Linder’s work has a menacingly playful quality, with its spirited-but-spiky, post-punk DIY ethos. But when her collages stand alongside Wilke’s, the implications feel more sober”
There are also plenty of collages in Linder’s current show at Charleston, Sussex. A Dream Between Waking and Sleeping constructs a different conversation: her works are in dialogue with Duncan Grant’s never-seen-before erotic drawings, meaning that many of these collages feature nude men. They are given the same, armoured treatment: bits of them obscured with domestic silverware and sports trophies. However, they lack some of the bite of the works in the Alison Jacques show.
Ideally, a joint show should bring out something new or clarify an old idea. It should ask you to look a little closer, threads of connection unspooling and tethering. All of Linder’s work has a menacingly playful quality, with its spirited-but-spiky, post-punk DIY ethos. But when her collages stand alongside Wilke’s, the implications feel more sober – the explorations of body-as-commodity sharper. Presented together, they register not only as two distinct iterations of feminist art on either side of the Atlantic, but as expressions of a needling, Surrealist sensibility. There are no jointed dolls or human violins here. But whether focusing on the self or revising images from the past, there is a welcome sense of upending in these contrasts and unlikely alliances between the physical and inanimate.
Linder / Hannah Wilke is at Alison Jacques, London, until 11 March
Linder, A Dream Between Sleeping and Waking is at Charleston, Sussex, until 12 March