Pam Glew is an English artist exhibiting in Australia for the first time. Her work frequently consists of portraits, inspired by cinema, executed via non-traditional methods (ie not just paint) on richly textured surfaces.
In between Pam loading a van full of her newly framed artwork, and driving it to the gallery to be hung, I had the pleasure of interviewing her over a coffee.
Dom Romeo: The first thing that stands out about your work is that it’s mixed media – you use things like flags and you sew things onto them. But you also use ‘traditional art practices’. What do ‘traditional art practices’ entail?PAM GLEW: The traditional art techniques that I use are painting, and craft techniques like sewing, appliqué and embroidery. Kind of ‘womens’ work’, I guess.
I quite like that whole 1950s ‘women’s work’ idea where you use something very ‘domestic’, but put it in an art context. It’s making craft a little bit sexy. I like the idea of not being a painter, not being a craftsperson, not fitting in any genre, but floating between a few.
My art’s a little bit like sculpture because it is pieces of work in a room; it’s a bit like working with space. But the craft techniques are in there, and they’re used with so many layers – everything’s sewn, dyed, embroidered, bleached, sewn again, then mended and then distressed. I use sandpaper and vintage materials, so it’s kind of wrecked and then mended. Those processes make it like painting, but in a new, contemporary context. By using bleach and dye it’s not easily comparable with paintings that are painted with oil. I think of oil painting as a traditional painting technique, whereas I tend to use so many techniques that it’s like a new style, a new way of painting.
Dom Romeo: What brought you to that? Was there a movement that inspired you, or was it borne of something else? Because you are crossing borders – you are transgressing boundaries and moving into new places.
PAM GLEW: Originally, I studied art, but I also studied theatre. Theatre is inter-disciplinary. You’ve got set design, costume design, prop design; working with actors and directors… I was quite used to being a scene painter one day and a costume dresser the next day. That isn’t a movement – but there’s certainly a movement in Europe with Tracey Emin and people that work on fabric and blankets – Annette Messager and that whole kind of thing. I guess it’s post modernism, but I think of it as pop art in a way. So it has references to the Andy Warhol world of celebrity and representing people in a very ‘clean portrait’ kind of way. My work references 1970s realism as well. There are connections with pop art and contemporary textiles. Although I’m not too comfortable with being thought of as a ‘textile’ artist; it’s a kind of painting that happens to use fabrics.
Dom Romeo: You tend to like to use national flags. In a world that likes to point fingers and find scapegoats and use the flag as something to condemn people as proof of disloyalty or treason… why flags? How flags? And what’s been the reaction to flags?
PAM GLEW: Before I worked on fabrics and flags, I worked on metal – on copper. So I was quite used to using vintage and antique and distressed – ‘old’ – pieces of material before I made a painting. I would never want to work on a white canvas because it hasn’t got any history.
I had a few years of using metal, and September 11th happened, and there was a lot of ‘fear’ culture around America. So I wanted to use American flags because it had a resonance and a real kind of… ‘shock’ value. I guess it’s kind of a ‘shock art’. The ‘American Flag’ series that I did was sort of designed to shock, but it was also a reference to terrorism and fear culture. I did a lot of women looking shocked on American flags – looking numb and disbelieving. I referenced lots of horror films.
I started off using the American flag and then moved to using European flags – French flags, Union Jacks. I realised that there’s something beautiful about using a flag: it’s got history and it’s got resonance that people recognise instantly. Because it’s to do with heritage, it impacts people on their gut instinct, rather than their brain. They don’t really have to pull it apart intellectually, they can see it. It says more to them about their history quickly – it speeds up. Rather than doing a painting of a flag, it’s already there, so there’s quite a lot to work with.
Dom Romeo: The core elements that you’re bringing together will mean different things to different people. To a degree, different people will come and see your work and read different things into it depending on what the flag means to them, and what the images on them – celebrities or otherwise – mean to them as well. What have the reactions been?
PAM GLEW: The first show I did with American flags was in a provincial gallery in England. It was in a window in quite a conservative area but it was an American flag – and I’d burnt it – I use heat guns. Maybe the burning of the American flag had quite a lot of controversy around it because they pelted the window with eggs. The gallery had to take it down every night because they were scared.
Dom Romeo: I would have been photographing the egg-pelted glass as well, and making that an artwork! Do you remember the big concert and celebration after 9/11 – one of the things they did was present a burnt flag retrieved from ground zero. Sometimes a burnt flag is cool – depends who’s burnt it and why. You are opening up a whole lot of area of debate – should people want to pursue it – with your art.
PAM GLEW: That’s one way to see it. A lot of Americans have bought my work on flags and think of it as glorifying the American flag. At the beginning I wanted it to be more of a political statement – not in any way anti-American, but anti-fear culture because I felt that America and Europe were producing quite a lot of fear around this terrorist attack.
It’s grown a lot more general because I’ve started creating flags in a much more loving way. I’ve made a few flags that have a lot of work in them, so it does end up coming full circle, going from subverting it to kind of glorifying it. Especially the Australian flag series – I feel I’ve been a bit more of a worshiper than subverting it. The Kylie flag and the Dannii flag are more of a celebration.
Dom Romeo: I kind of like what’s going on there, because you’re an English artist, painting ex-pat Aussie artists who have adopted England as home, on the Aussie flag, which began as an English flag and still contains the English flag among its Aussie elements…
PAM GLEW: Yeah, the Union Jack being a big part of the Australian flag. I kind of wanted to explore whether the Union Jack needed to be on the Australian flag, because when I think about Australia, I always think about the night sky and seeing it from the other side of the world. A lot of the flags I made were to do with the star constellations and the Southern Cross and how the stars work. They all ended up being very blue. I use denim a lot because I like vintage denim. It’s got a kind of wealth of history and it references Americana and that kind of work ethic, and Australian lifestyle.
But the Union Jack is a funny one. I’m not sure if Australians like that they’ve got a quarter of their flag taken up by this flippin’ Union Jack. Does it need to be there? I don’t know.
Dom Romeo: That’s a debate that still rages: should it have the Aboriginal flag in it? Should it be the Aboriginal flag?
PAM GLEW: The Aboriginal flag is a beautiful thing as well. Colour-wise, it doesn’t go with the Australian flag. I kept it quite simple. I’ve made quite a few Australian flags. I’ve also made a few flags that are denim, just with stars. They’re sort of ‘shield’ flags, portrait-way around, that have just a few stars on a blue background. They’re quite simple and quite pure. The Dannii Minogue flag has bits of the American flag because of her fame in America. But making a Kylie flag – she’s so massive in England, I had to have the Union Jack on that one.
Dom Romeo: So the American Flag artwork’s been accepted with a different attitude, at the same time as you’ve started making them more out of love. Were you conscious of a change in your approach, and is that what changed the art and the response it receives?
PAM GLEW: I guess maybe it’s public opinion. When George [W.] Bush was in power, there was quite a lot of anger around. A lot of people in Europe couldn’t work out why George Bush was in power. Now with Obama in America, there’s a sort of change – there’s certainly a sea change of public opinion. It’s to do with the current climate. I guess I changed my view of America and changed my view of what I was saying in work – whether I was angry or not. Maybe I’m not quite as angry as I was a few years ago.
Dom Romeo: Your work isn’t all flags, though, is it?
PAM GLEW: I kind of think of it as paintings on flags or textiles or fabric. It’s not all flags. I do printmaking on vintage fabric. But it’s all fabric-based.
Dom Romeo: Tell me about vintage fabric. I wouldn’t know a vintage fabric; I’d know a vintage dress by the shape and print on it. But I wouldn’t recognize vintage fabric. Tell me about it – what constitutes vintage fabric? Where do you find it? What do you do with it?
PAM GLEW: I use anything that’s quite thick, like linen or ticking – which is like stripy linen – and also brocade. I use this brocade that’s very thick – almost like upholstery or curtaining fabric. But it’s got to be – I don’t know – at least twenty or thirty years old in order to not look too chintzy. There’s nothing worse than going to a fabric shop and using new fabrics. It always looks very wrong.
I source them through flea markets, antique shops, second-hand shops… eBay even comes up with good stuff sometimes. And friends give me a lot of things. I use denim. I started off using all my jeans. Then friends donate really interesting old, ripped up denim jeans that they’ve got. It’s good because I’m making work that has a heritage, and also, I can recognise people in it. ‘That’s the pocket of the jeans that I loved, that I used for five years…’ It’s got more humanity to it. It references people in my life.
Dom Romeo: You studied drama as well as art. Where did you study?
PAM GLEW: I went to Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in England. We call it ‘Rosie B’. It was a drama school, full of actors and musicians and directors and designers. I was a designer for a few years. There were costume makers and prop makers, and it was like working in an in-house theatre. We had three theatre buildings. We used to do productions all the time. That was kind of my training after art school. We were getting an education, but we were working from eight in the morning to 11:00, 12:00 at night. It was good for building up a work ethic. It was a good team, but I did tend to work with so many different materials that I was able to explore how to do set design with fabric and metal, and what happens when you distress different fabrics and metals.
That’s probably part of why I do what I do that isn’t traditional painting. Maybe if I went to traditional painting art school I’d be doing painting in the traditional way, but because I came round about it in a very strange direction, that’s why I do what I do.
Dom Romeo: You said you worked with metal for a while. Why did you move on? Was it just easier to work with fabric? Or was it easier to access fabric?
PAM GLEW: It was easier to work with. I used to go to scrap yards and have to chat up the scrap yard men, to go, ‘can I have this bit of copper?’ or ‘this bit of aluminium?’ or ‘can I have this bit of steel?’ And then, I’d have a taxi waiting, and I’d be like, ‘Do you mind if you carry it in to the taxi, because I can’t lift it’. And then I’d get to the other end and be having to ask my boyfriend and all his mates to carry it into the flat. It was just ridiculous. But it looked great. I did quite a few commissions for public spaces in metal. But in a way, it’s real pain-in-the-arse material to use. My hands were always cut and I’d always bash my toe and stuff.
Dom Romeo: That was my next comment – here you are bare-armed, I don’t see any scars. Are you sure you worked with metal?
PAM GLEW: That was a good few years ago – they’ve healed. It was about nine or ten years ago.
I started exhibiting locally and then nationally, and then I wanted to do shows that were further afield, and shipping a piece of heavy steel or copper hundreds of miles is just insane. I wanted to exhibit internationally, and there was no way I could do a show in America or in Australia, still working with heavy metal. It would have been difficult. Fabric’s great: you either frame it, or you roll it.
Dom Romeo: And needle-stick injuries are as bad as it gets.
PAM GLEW: Mmm. I’ve sewn through my finger a couple of times, but that’s okay, you get over it. You just pull it out.
Dom Romeo: Why are you exhibiting in Australia now? Why now? How?
PAM GLEW: Dom [Dominic Rowswell] from Bicker Gallery organised an exhibition for me when he lived in Bristol. I’d already worked with him there. He did a few pop-up shows in Bristol before that and after that. So I’m kind of used to working with him. And he emigrated to Sydney on the proviso that I could have a show.
Recently I did a few shows in LA; this year I’ve got shows in Paris and London. I exhibit internationally anyway, but I’ve never exhibited south of the equator. So this is my first show in the Southern Hemisphere.
Dom Romeo: Tell me briefly – bleach and dye. You’ve told me why they’re interesting to work with, but did they come out of the process of costuming or set design?
PAM GLEW: No. I used to do quite a lot of theatre designs that would look like an installation. I’d use mud and straw, or I’d use metal. I’d use organic materials. And then when I work on metal, I used to oxidize copper with bleach. So Domestos was always my main art material. Then when I followed on to working with fabric, the first flag I did, I burnt with a heat gun, and it filled my studio with black smoke and I got a lot of complaints so I realised burning flags wasn’t the way forward; the next step for me was to integrate a face into the flag. Dying and bleach seemed like the natural way because painting on fabric is always going to look crap. It has to look like it’s integrated into the fabric like a ghost, rather than painted on top.
Flags have got such hardy chemical dyes that you can dye them black and then bleach them and it doesn’t get rid of the red, white and blue. That’s why I use bleach, because flags are pretty invincible.
Dom Romeo: Part of your work is also inspired by cinema. Tell me about the cinematic side.
PAM GLEW: I started working with the idea of the image of women in film, which is quite a cinematic cliché, but I wrote my dissertation about the images of women in film. I was engrossed in watching films on pause and seeing the times when actors are not really acting – they’re just being themselves. When you slow it down, you can see parts of themselves coming out in the little ways they look at the camera – it might not be acting anymore. From then, the year 2000 – ten years ago – I was photographing women in film on pause, but I didn’t quite know how to make that into an artwork.
I like watching horror films: 1960s, 1970s American horror films and also zombie films – George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead…– and also quite obscure Italian horror films. Horror always appeals to me – especially the way the camera always sees the film through the women’s eyes. It’s always the victim’s eyes. And people always ask me why I always do women. It’s probably because in film, you always see through the male’s gaze. You rarely see a real, extreme close-up of a male looking beautiful and scared. You never see that. But it’s quite seductive, that kind of look. It’s a bit dark. We shouldn’t be seduced by a woman looking scared, but we are. Women looking scared but beautiful is always a winner for me.
For the Australian show I looked at Australian film. I watched Wolf Creek and Rabbit Proof Fence. I’ve also started doing celebrities, but looking like they’re on screen. The Kylie piece for example, looks as though she’s in a horror film because it’s very dark but it has that extreme lighting, extreme contrast. Even if the origins aren’t from a film, they end up looking a bit filmic; cinematic.
Dom Romeo: Now, I’m going to go out on a limb. I haven’t explored this theory since I was a student.
You brought up postmodernism. Part of PoMo theory is about transgressing borders.
There’s the object, ‘A’, and it’s ‘other’ that isn’t the object, ‘not-A’. In horror, the other is different. Rather than it being ‘not-A’ it’s a combination of ‘A’ and ‘not-A’ – that’s what the ‘fantastic’ is, something somewhere in between – a mixture of both that’s not either.
Your art transgresses borders – it’s not this sort of art or that sort of art, it’s somewhere in between. And in horror film – the horrific – is the somewhere in between; and that moment of the actor who’s not quite in character and not quite herself, but is somewhere in between. I’m seeing a through-line here. If I had to write a thesis about you, or if someone had to, some years hence, that might be a starting point.
PAM GLEW: God forbid!