Pam Glew, born 1978, is a contemporary artist who is best known for her unique and bold bleaching technique on fabric and flags. She uses dye and bleach to deconstruct and distress vintage materials in her own breed of painting. Heavily inspired by film, her strong cinematic paintings often use screen stills of women in film as their starting point. Her current Beautiful and Damned series references subjects from the 1920-30s, silent films and tragic stars of the screen.
She is one of the few female British artists to emerge in recent years and her large-scale work has been showcased in Europe, USA, Asia and Australia in over 80 group exhibitions and 5 solo shows. In anticipation of her 6th solo show, at Mauger Modern in London, we interviewed Pam to talk about the recent developments in her work.
What do you do first thing every day?
Check my Iphone for emails with one eye open, then make a good mug of tea and eat cereal whilst replying to my emails.
In an interview with Arty Magazine in 2009 you explain that it was the tragic event of 9/11 that prompted you to start working with flags. Can you tell us what exactly triggered that idea?
After 9/11 happened I sensed our government, the Bush administration and the media all feeding us with fear and paranoia about more terror attacks to justify attacking Iraq and Afghanistan.
When George Bush was in power I think a number of artists made work about that time, the disconnection governments had with the people was palpable, and the illegal wars started in the name of 9/11 was a catalyst for me. So I begun making work of shocked and stunned women on American flags, they were screen still from horror movies, and that feeling of vacuous disbelief that you get from horror films is similar to how I felt when we attacked Iraq.
Getting angry is probably one of the best catalysts for art.
How did you arrive at using bleach to create images on vintage fabric? Can you tell us more about the process?
Well bleach has been my main art material for about 11 years. Firstly I used it on copper which makes a patina, and then when I started using fabric I wanted to make an image look like it was part of the cloth, not painted on, but ‘emerging’ from the fabric. So with that in mind I tried dyes, and burning (very toxic and filled my whole studio with black smoke, so that was crossed off). I then thought if I dye the entire thing black, maybe bleaching techniques would work. It did.
So I use either bleach, or a textile medium inexcusably called ‘discharge’, which basically burns out the dye.
How long do you spend on most pieces (thinking about them, preparing them, executing)?
The planning is the main bit, sometimes I will start with a piece of fabric that I source, and then for instance I might want to put Marlene Dietrich on it. So I will watch a load of her films, take screen stills and then used those as reference for the painting, that takes a couple of late nights watching movies and photographing in the dark.
The fabric is dyed, and dried naturally, and then I can start painting.
Each painting has between 6-10 coats of bleach, and after each coat it’s washed and dried to stop the reaction. I work on a painting for about 10-14 days.
What were initially the intended implications in using flags?
I think we just see flags being used so much in political demonstrations that its immersed in our subconscious. Obviously the burning of flags in the street is an act that’s repeated over and over, and is a powerful act that crossed over language barriers and screams of discontent, distrust and anger. I think flag laws are fascinating, especially in the US and Australia, there’s so much you can’t do with them.
When I started the series on American flag, I call it the Fear Series, it was a reaction to the George Bush administration and that series represents that time, so the Fear series is over for now.
How did those implications and your personal stance on the events and the involvement of media evolve over the last 10 years?
I’m trying to get away from flags now, I think they are so powerful and potent, and that is somehow a bit like playing with fire. I think that as I’ve wised up to world events you realize that certain flags are kind of off limits.
I’m also making an ongoing series of work on World flags; African, Chinese, Japanese, Inuit and Aborigine, they are more about cultural identity and focused on children of different places and tribes. Those flags symbolise a culture, its more about respect and appreciating individual cultural identity.
My next show is called ‘Beautiful and Damned’, this new series explores the silent movie age through to the 1920s and 30s. Its all largely on vintage and incredibly precious antique materials, 1920s textiles and brocades, so flags don’t get much of a look in.
Why do you do work with film stills and how does the content of the films relate to the chosen fabric and/or series?
This Beautiful and Damned series is about the silent movie age. So I have been watching Louise Brooks films, Charlie Chaplin and some 1920s and 30s films too. The silent movies are incredibly slow paced, so I find myself watching them on double speed, but they look like a feast for the eyes, really evoke that era, sublime costumes and stunning actors. Some films like the Chaplin movies also hint at class division and films really brings an era to life in a way no other media can, I watch films as research as much as for taking screen stills.
The actor or performer in the film often has a kind of aura and I try to liken that person with the cloth, so Louise Brooks is on a black floral tapestry, quite opulent and mysterious. Josephine Baker is on a rich green botanical print fabric, which to me matches her vibe, wild and free.
What is your personal fascination with these films and/or films in general?
Films are visual fodder, and old movies for me have the best crafted scripts, the amazing one liners. I guess its escapism in the name of research.
It’s the voyeurism of film that I find fascinating.
What is your favorite movie of all times?
I really don’t have one favorite film. But the original Double Indemnity (1944) is amazing, and Shanghai Express (1932) is also a current favorite.
Why do you focus on women in your work? Especially in relation to the intended political address of the influence of media on our perception on terrorism (as stated in Arty Magazine)?
I wouldn’t say that our heightened perception of terrorism has entirely disappeared, but when there are major demos and civil rights issues all over the Middle East, and the devastation in Japan by the Earthquake and Tsunami, I think we come to put our irrational fears about terrorism into perspective. So I haven’t made work about fear for a while now.
I’m trying to be more democratic and I have been painting men and boys since 2010. I think some artists like me, paint what they know, and being a women I know women’s faces more, so you paint what is familiar to start with.
But the ‘male gaze’ has been an interest to me in cinema, we often have massive close ups of women in film which focuses on their eyes, and sexualise the actress often in parts of a scene which may be quite disturbing. Its a film tradition which I have realized goes way back to the beginning of silent movies. Even Louise Brooks and Marlene Dietrich had extreme close ups where they looked vulnerable and frightened.
So when I paint women, there’s obviously a bit of gender politics in there. And being female in quite a male art world I think I may have subconsciously painting women as a way to redress the balance.
Which tradition do you feel your work belongs to?
I think my work as figurative paintings and post-pop. I use found materials, which has a legacy from the post-pop era, and I think Art Povera too has had an influence, so Post-pop will do for now. Also the post-modern concern with sampling things from the past and critical film theory also have their part to play.
What events do you have coming up this year?
I have a solo in New York at the end of the year which is majorly exciting. So I will be started work on that show as soon as Beautiful and Damned goes up!
The upcoming exhibition with Mauger Modern, at the Blackall Studios on Leonard Street in London, will start at May 24 and run until June 25.