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Pam Glew: Beautiful and the Damned

With her third London solo show, the artist's singular vintage aesthetic goes antique, celebrating the glamour and tragedy of the American Jazz Age

Delving into the dark and decadent world of the American Jazz Age, Pam Glew’s latest exhibition – a fitting epitaph to the glamorous but tragic lifestyles of the 1920s - uses antique cloth to revive the past with her signature bleach technique. Emerging from the cloths, dyed and bleached from their original state, icons such as Marlene Dietrich, Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart and Josephine Baker, appear as ghostly reincarnations emerging from the fabric.

A shift from Glew’s vintage pop focus and recent works which has seen her collaborate on a project with legendary Ralph Lauren, Beautiful and Damned takes the mood of this roaring age (borrowing the title from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s defining novel), to celebrate a cursed era of stars who had, and lost it all.

Dazed Digital: How did the idea for the artwork originate?
Pam Glew:
My last solo show ‘Circus’ at Red Bull, was all-guns-blazing Pop Art; red, white and blue, iconic Americana, recognisable people in the portraits like Twiggy, Michael Jackson and Blondie and a travelling circus vibe. So when I was conceiving the show for this May I wanted something a little more elegant.

I take most of my inspiration from movies, so I started off by watching silent movies, from the very beginning of cinema. The colours in the film that were hand coloured in afterwards started me thinking about using a softer pastel colour pallet.

DD: What interested you about the jazz age?
Pam Glew:
I think it’s the innovation of that time, new movies, from the silent movies to the talkies. Amazing music and new forms of music like jazz, the dancing and the drinking. Prohibition times were obviously pretty interesting, with secret drinking dens, women getting into smoking and partying and drugs. 

I guess it symbolises what ‘excess’ can end in, actresses and actors from fairly average backgrounds became quickly hideously rich and many of them became victims of their own success. The monstrously gross death stories were not pretty to research but weirdly gripping.

DD: Who’s your favourite figure from that period and why?
Pam Glew:
Clara Bow. She looks the quintessential flapper and was a big name actress at the time of the silent movies and through to the talkies. Her story is that she had a disturbed mother, who had intensely psychotic episodes. When Clara told her mum that she was going to be working in movies her mum threatened her with a butchers knife and Clara had to struggle to get the knife off her. Clara locked up her mum and she was later admitted to an institution.

That episode seemed to stay with Clara. Clara in later life was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and tried to kill herself. So her story is pretty tragic, but because of her cuteness she remains a symbol of stardom and flapper ideals. I find Amelia Earhart really fascinating too. She was a real grafter.

DD: How did you come to work with Ralph Lauren?
Pam Glew:
I had previously worked on American flags, and I had started incorporating bleached denim when Polo Ralph Lauren came to me with the idea of making a denim ‘Art Stars’ inspired by their star logo. So the timing was pretty perfect for me. They asked me to make the first Art Star, it was delivered to me last January, in that mad winter when it was snowing all over Europe.

A poor guy had to drive from Germany to my studio in Brighton with the star through snow in both countries. I then covered it in more denim and made a kind of flag for it stitched, dyed and, bleached a huge portrait on it. ‘Carousel’ the star then got picked up and toured around Europe, and was finally auctioned with all the other 50 stars for Teenage Cancer Trust. This year they are continuing the project, with young emerging artists.

DD: What messages does the beautiful and damned exhibition carry?
Pam Glew:
For me it’s about the human condition. That idea that when you ‘have it all’, you can be both cursed and blessed. Being ‘damned’ is perhaps a bit harsh, but I definitely think that the happiest people you meet aren’t necessarily the ones in the limelight. Beside the hedonism and the tragic heros of the time, its also a celebration of that era. There was a lot of amazing people and great innovators, I think that ‘endeavour’ and spirit of the time is something I got a lot of inspiration from, like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, that determination and gung-ho attitude to break records and test out relatively new aeroplanes to fly solo across the Atlantic, is something that I find spectacularly brave.

Beautiful and Damned, Pam Glew, Blackall Studios, 73 Leonard Street, London, EC2A 4QS, 25 -29 May, 2011