Red Bull Studios, London Bridge
26/11/10 – 02/12/10
The second major exhibition by popular emerging artist Pam Glew has all the trappings of punk nostalgia, mixed up with celebrity noir. Portraits of well-known celebrities were bleached and dyed onto vintage materials, much like the celebrities themselves. The images were from different generations, making an attempt to capture cult iconography from the past five decades and then superimposing them onto national flags. Mostly American and British, with a few internationals for good measure, the celebrities used were easily identified and of course that was the goal. Despite the type of canvas and the affects of discolouration, bleaching and distressing, these faces are still too ingrained within our cultural consciousness.
Inspired by David Bailey and Piet Mondrian, this 21st century punk pop-art exhibition was called Circus, apparently because the ‘circus vibe’ is continuous through Pam Glew’s work. The chaos and fun of the circus is meant to be captured within her showcases. Contrary to this description I found the exhibition to be over-themed, unoriginal and gimmicky.
Technically proficient and with an astute eye for the imagery, Pam Glew captures the nostalgic essence of celebrity and patriotism. Yet the use of cult iconography appears to be largely superficial and a deeper meaning, though alluded to by the artist, is not really present within most of the art. Glew chose icons that had dark histories and often complicated, tragic private lives. Such as Hunter S. Thompson, whose twisted lifestyle entitled his face to be on several styles of flag canvas within the show. This made the notorious image of Thompson a bit meaningless as it was placed upon flag after flag. What’s more, the only other face to receive the same treatment was Kate Moss on the Union Jack. Maybe Hunter S. Thompson did a Rimmel advert I’m not aware of.
On interviewing Pam Glew, I noticed that she did indeed have a passion for these icons and the notion of celebrity. In particular she focuses in on the sixties, describing them as “uplifting and optimistic”. To explain this she referenced the slightly more abstract portrait of Jane Birken, the design based on food packaging, possibly one of Unilever’s earlier incarnations. The detail of the painting captured a colourful character of the 1960’s but seemed a flimsy form of subtlety. Attempting to juxtapose two themes, celebrity and state, icons and private life, Glew fails to fully portray these within the pieces.
The more abstract forms are at first a diversion from the theme (thank goodness) but upon closer examination actually kept quite strictly to the patriotic, vintage flag utility. Certain pieces displayed more of a symbiosis between the face and the flag. These were the ones that stood out for me, Mia Farrow upon an American confederate flag and Jean Michel Basquiat on a 1950’s American flag. These were questioning portraits, filled with drama and some elements of sinister mystery. When asked about these pieces, Pam Glew explained that they were experiments in exploring backgrounds but for this show she generally she focused on the close up image.
Glew did do an impressive re-incarnation of Twiggy’s world-renowned portrait, utilising a Mondrian design to give her a twisted edginess which captured the “dark underbelly of her celebrity status”, Glew said “she’s assessing you… the way we judge celebrities, it’s a societal problem”. The irony can’t be lost on her, considering the most likely purchasers of such basely commercial pieces are undoubtedly celebrities. Nevertheless the non-idealised version of international icons and the brutal treatment of powerful nation’s flags did have a certain appeal, even if the emotional meaning within the majority of these portraits was only skin deep.
Pam Glew defined the majority of the work as “the alliance of sixties movie stars with the tragedy of celebrity”. The fact that Kate Moss’s picture is the most used was explained away as a desire to have “one lone contemporary”. Someone ought to remind Pam Glew that this is no longer the 1990’s and she is 10 years out of date, not that I have a huge desire to see Kiera Knightley’s mug shot up on a St. George’s cross.