Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Glam at Liverpool Tate

Glam rock is as seventies as power cuts, Watney's Party six and the Sweeney. Yet the "decade that taste forgot" has recently had a bit of a revival. Statistics show that we were never as equal a society as the early 70s, and the  music scene from the early seventies (before everything went off the boil prior to Punk) has rightly been lauded for its diversity.

But was Glam a movement? In some senses the 70s seems the art-less decade. Literature was in the doldrums, the American new wave of cinema had begun to peter out by its middle years before "Star Wars" changed the game for good, and its hard to think of a single visual artistic great associated with that era; no Warhol (though he was still very active), no Picasso, no Dali.

Liverpool Tate in its latest show Glam - the Performance of Style, has put together a portmanteau show that puts the "glam" of the era to the forefront. A mix of V&A style pop culture references and juidiciously chosen art from the collection, there is certainly much to engage and admire, but whether it entirely convinces as a show I'm not so sure.

The book that comes with the show is more helpful in some ways. Essays by Micheal Bracewell, Simon Reynolds and others pull together particular strands of seventies aesthetic from glam rock, to queer art, to the conflation of consumer culture with art. The exhibition itself is split into a UK and American section, with a little bit of European political art at the very end. Glam rock of course was a nearly entirely British phenomenon, and I've always seen it a little as a mainstreaming of the King's Road (where Malcolm Maclaren's shop, in its frequent renaming from Let it Rock through to Sex, nicely maps the changed aesthetics of a decade) - as for many people the "sixties", the pill, gay liberation, the women's movement, and the music and the fashions, only made it to the English Midlands and North in the early 70s. In this sense glam rock can be seen as a more down-to-earth and working class version of the hippy culture, ditching the politics and upping the sparkle.

Emblematic of this is the 2nd Roxy Music album, For Your Pleasure, their musical high point was also an aesthetic high - a gatefold sleeve with Amanda Lear on the cover, and the band dressed in outlandish costumes, mostly designed by fashion designer Antony Price, on the inner fold. Eno and Ferry's costumes are here in the first part of the show, and Price himself photographed by Karl Stoeker as a catwalk Teddy Boy. Stoeker's photos are a revelation, taken from the context of the album, and put alongside the images of Price and Lear, there's the aesthetic of the glamour shot but through a dark and decadent reversioning. They feel both bright and stark at the same time. The early 70s most iconic pop moment may well be the hugging of glammed up Bowie and Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops, and it is Ronson - who in another life might have been a northern bricklayer - dressed to the nines, but ever the hard man, as if its the most normal look in the world which is as telling as anything. Basically, in the simple aesthetic of the 70s provincial high street you can be as glam looking as you like, and nobody would think there was anything gay going on, as mainstream Britain has always preferred camp. There are some fascinating pieces of social history. A student film of Roxy fans attending a Bryan Ferry show at Manchester Opera House in 1977 are a perfect template for Blitz kids three years later; an early Derek Jarman film sees his aesthetic already in place in a cheaply shot vignette; and some early Martin Parr shots of Osmonds fans, nicely captures the awkwardness of British youth.

The art of the time is more difficult in some ways. Allen Jones' Table from 1969 and David Hockney's Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy are perhaps the two most recognisable works; yet the rubberised fetishism of the former (echoed in Roxy's "In Every Dream Home a Heartache") and the slightly chilling formalism of the Hockney speak of different things than "glam." Here is where the exhibition seems more a portmanteau than a genuine movement. The "best" art is from before glam was articulated; yet its not clear that it led to "glam" except indirectly; Richard Hamilton's work - an SF aesthetic of cut-up and post-modern appropriation for instance speaks of a starker world than the artifice of glam; its more akin to the bleached colours of Roeg's films "Performance" and particularly "The Man Who Fell to Earth." The most interesting exhibit in many ways is the "scatter room" that recreates a piece of work that has been shown since the early 70s and looks like a display of bric-a-brac. In some ways the art of the early 70s, particularly British art, has almost disappeared in this show, either because it is was ephemeral in some way, or because it was contrary to this glam aesthetic.

The American story is a different one and is wrapped up with gay rights and feminism. Here we see familiar pieces, such as Cindy Sherman's different personas or Nan Goldin's photographs of performers. Glam never made it in the US, at least until it was unpicked and turned into cabaret by Alice Cooper or Kiss. Whereas middle Britain has always had bit of a flirtation with gay culture, as long as its Larry Grayson or John Inman rather than anything too out there, in America it has rarely gone big except without attaching itself to something else: Broadway for instance, or disco. It was chameleon Bowie who came out remember, not Elton John or Freddie Mercury.

Glam, American style, comes out of the post-Stonewall freedoms of New York, San Francisco and a few other cities and because of this was much artier. The Cockettes were just one of a number of "cabaret" acts that we find in the show, rescued a little from history here. It is the aesthetic that fed into the big mainstream success of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Though absent from this show, Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" seems perfectly set in this moment - where straight America comes up against its fears. Films of that era, such as the Lumet film, John Waters' "Pink Flamingoes" and "Rocky Horror" are surely key to unpicking this show, and the Waters one is one of three being shown in tandem with the exhibition at FACT in March. 

The final room of the show lets another story in, and its a welcome one. Works from European artists like Polke and Paschke are politic in tone; and its a useful (and overdue) reminder that glam didn't exist in a world of plenty, as much of a world that needed some kind escapism. Baader Meinhoff, Vietnam, Watergate, the oil crisis, the cold war, these are the real world events underneath all of this. What we are seeing is how we often follow personal freedoms even when the social or national picture is darker.

I'm not sure Glam entirely succeeds either as social history or art exhibition, but its probably the latter that's more problematic - in that this portmanteau show places different things together under a single banner. The accompanying book reflects this honestly, but the show itself seems sometimes confused and partial. More difficult I think is that we are now at the point where the art of the last third of the twentieth century is facing a more critical judgement: that of posterity; and its not that its found wanting, but that there's a curatorial desire to hijack the better works and artists for myriad reasons. Liverpool Tate has previously had a Summer of Love exhibition from the late 60s, whilst the V&A has comprehensively covered Post-Modernism; individual works and artists are being rolled out to answer different questions, and not always satisfactorily. There's a political point here as well - though this is more about the social history: glam in Britain was a working-class movement in many ways, and therein lies its historical fascination; whilst in the US its intimately wound up in gay and women's liberation; these, rather than the allure of the glitterball, are the key themes of the art and popular culture of the era. Its a show full of interesting works, though some may be over-familiar, and the book is excellent and answers, to a large degree, my criticisms. Go see, but perhaps read one or two of the essays first.

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