Known for her striking images of flags and faces, formed from a complex but primitive technique involving “Domestos bleach”, Pam Glew is a Brighton-based artist whose work defies easy categorisation. Using famous faces as a starting point, there’s certainly a pop art vibe–heightened by the Rauschenberg-esque fabric destruction–yet the anarchic slash ’n’ burn vibe often earns it a place at the “urban” side of things.
Thanks to the large scale of much of Glew’s work, it’s unusual to see it reduced to postcard format, but also hints at new processes and experiments the artist has been honing in creating new work. And it suits her brilliantly. We had a chat with Glew ahead of this year’s Moniker, where she’s showing both her Art on a Postcard piece and also as part of Westbank Galllery.
Your work is usually on a pretty large scale - was it challenging reducing it down to a postcard size for Art on a Postcard?
It really is challenging! Usually I use household bleach and that gets soaked in and dissolves, so it works really nicely on a large scale. As soon as that’s down to 6 by 4 it’s not so great. Recently I’ve been involved with a gallery in LA called Thinkspace where the work in 12 by 12 inch panels so it’s quite small scale, and I used paint for the first time. I used a mixture of paint and pearlescent and iridescent ink, and a bit of bleach. Art on a Postcard happened at a very good time, as it was nice to experiment on a small scale my works. They’re usually seen quite large so now I know I can make work small.
Why do you think you’d been previously so reluctant to use paint?
I knew there were lots of artists using paint, there’s 1001 artist doing their own thing. I’d always looked at the work of these great oil painters so I thought there wasn’t any point. That’s why I picked up a bottle of Domestos instead. Years ago I worked with copper and used bleach to get that patina green colour, and then I started experimenting with flags, and burning flags and ink and heat guns. Now I get through a lot of bleach.
The unusual media makes your work harder to categorise, too.
I suppose my work sits somewhere between the urban art scene and the new contemporary movement, which is where Moniker art fair is. People say ‘urban’ or ‘street’ or ‘low brow’ or whatever but my work is inspired by the streets, although I’m not a street artist, and the deconstruction of flags is what I’m known for.
The use of bleach seems to allude to the idea of domesticity and female stereotypes too, can you tell me a bit more about that?
I’ve always been annoyed at how few women artists are recorded in art history. The female form is recorded, but it becomes a history of men painting women, rather than female artists. The bleach is a nod to domesticity. But it’s a double-edged sword, as I’m noting down this unfairness but also using bleach and repeatedly cleaning and ironing!
Another reason it must be refreshing to start using paint then…
It feels like I’m starting over. I’ve recently been making work on a series of wooden panels with fabric that’s only bleached and ironed once, it’s similar to the piece for Art on a Postcard. It’s refreshing not being tied to the washing machine so much, or spending so much time contemplating life at the ironing board. Painting’s a bit like pulling teeth though–with bleach there aren’t so many variables.
Do you think sexism is still a big problem in the art world?
It’s getting better but obviously there’s still room for improvement. I’ve been asked to do art shows with a comment at the end of the email like ‘it’s nice to get a woman on board.’
Perhaps art buyers tend to like buying art made by men as they don’t get scared about them taking a break from their work. I had a baby four years ago and some galleries were really congratulatory but some were mortified about the idea of me taking a tiny career break. There were quite a lot of swearwords, which is a strange way of looking at it. I only took three or four months off after Finn was born. It is getting better, but no one really cares if there’s male artists who have families.
It’s a societal thing. However, buyers do buy work from female artists, otherwise I wouldn’t be speaking to you now.
What, and who, do you think would help improve the situation?
Sometimes it feels as if being an artist who has babies is seen as a weakness, when they’re not in the studio every day. But it has to come from the artists too: Marina Abramovic spoke about things in a very anti-feminist way about how she didn’t want children as she never wants to be away from her work.
It’s a challenge for everyone and it boils down to being complete rubbish. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re a man or a woman or if you have children or not. It’s a personal choice thing, but it’s used as a tool to victimise women and we all need to be aware of that.
How do you decide on the sort of faces you use in your work?
I tend to look for faces that have a sense of beauty but also vulnerability. When I started off making portraits of flags I was looking for faces from horror films, and the idea of how awful is it that we’re attracted to people looking scared but beautiful. Now it’s less from horror films and I’m more drawn to people who look very innocent. When you look at politics now we’re moving towards a sort of anti-intellectualism, so I started looking at portraits where it looks like it’s a child that’s in charge. It’s as if the monkeys have taken over politics. Naivety is really in, and intellectualism is really out.
How far do you think it’s the artist’s responsibility to discuss certain political or social issues in their work?
I think we all need to be engaged. I don’t think anything happens in a void, and art that looks pretty on a wall doesn’t go far enough for me–there’s nothing wrong with it, but contemporary art needs to have something to say. The artist’s viewpoint doesn’t have to be forced on you but you can’t avoid the world we’re living in right now. Art should respond to the here and now, and we’re in a very interesting time politically. Art is somewhat a sanctuary where you can let ideas grow, and I like to have some sort of hope it’s not all completely desperate.
To see all the artists taking part in this year's Moniker click HERE
About the writer
Emily Gosling is a freelance editor and writer based in London. She has contributed to AnOther, Vice,The White Review and Huffington Post, and was previously deputy editor at It’s Nice That and reporter/what's on editor at Design Week.