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Glam! The Performance of Style/Tate Liverpool

That it happened amidst the miners' strike and Heath's three-day week was a minor miracle, says Larry Sidorczuk

Written by . Published on February 14th 2013.

Glam! The Performance of Style/Tate Liverpool

SO, what's all this Glam! about, then? The coming-of-age of Art and Pop’s love-child, perhaps? Or maybe a retro celebration of art imitating life, and back again?

Probably both – and more besides. This exhibition walks on the wild side and oozes glitzy chic to show that metropolitan life can be as extraordinary as a meteor shower.

Bowie was blasting out of the PA…'Oh, you pretty things…don't you know you're driving your mamas and papas insane', which seemed to sum it all up

Quirky, exotic, quixotic? It only lasted a couple of exhilarating platform-tottering years and didn't see the light of day again before the coming of the New Romantics. Echoes of it exist today in Rocky Horror Show nights, style-conscious Goths and Lady Gaga, but that's a pale comparison. That it happened at all in the UK, amidst the miners' strike and Heath's three-day week, is a minor miracle.

Glam! is where, in the early 1970s, the worlds of art and pop collided, and in the resulting coruscation, a generation of bright, young glittery things played out their on and off-screen fantasies in an intoxicating whirl of alter-egos, eye-liner and Art Deco Hollywood-inspired decadence.

David Bowie By Terry O NeilDavid Bowie By Terry O Neil

Exhibition (or should it be sleeve) notes at the Tate state: "Glam! can be described as a convergence of art, fashion and music. Its artificial glamour, its dandyism and revivalism, its cheap and ready expressionism is instantly recognisable".

From Beardsley to Biba in one bound, then. For many, it was just another trashy trend in youth culture. For a dedicated few, it became an essential narcissistic blossoming and alternative lifestyle. Put simply, it's what our parents used to call "showing-off". 

In the UK, Glam!s breeding ground was the provincial art schools, particularly in the North. They opened up a way for talented, working-class teens to step out of their socially-allotted roles.

Going to art school meant a liberating freedom of expression from prevailing youth culture dominated, at the time, by suedeheads, Crombies, Doc Martens, Northern Soul and undertones of casual violence, and became the vital space where differences in attitude and self-identity mattered. Little wonder that they were also a seedbed for new-wave styles and potential first steps on the way to getting a band together.

The break-up of the Beatles paved the way for the industry’s next big thing. Having ditched the acoustic guitar, Bolan banged his gong and became the electric elf – eyeliner and all. Bowie's emergence as the other-worldly Starman-Ziggy persona shifted pop into another dimension.

Slade and Sweet quickly followed through the ritual weekly fix of Top of the Pops (increasingly viewed in colour) while Roxy Music offered a weird blend of lounge-lizard Ferry and Eno's eccentric feather boas. Groups competed against each other in the media-hyped glam stakes for chart success. MUD, Sweet and Gary Glitter particularly (but he's been airbrushed out). So, there’s a collection of vinyl album covers and influential magazines, wall posters and so on. Now I know what time-slips actually feel like.

Peter PhillipsPeter Phillips

A photo-montage by Peter Phillips had a back-bedroom wall feel about it. I liked the way that Phillips has integrated the elements into the grid pattern within a spectrum background. It’s clean. It’s neat. I wonder whether if it ever came out as an Athena poster print?

Franz Gertch%26#8217%3BS At Luciano%26#8217%3BS HouseAt Luciano's House

In contrast, Peter Hujar’s black-and-white portraits of The Cockettes (main image, top) reflect the influence of fashion as a Glam! statement, in particular the “performance of style” which is the sub-text to the exhibition. Hujar captures the detached decadence of ‘30s Hollywood chic, which Glam! positively celebrated – a world so far removed from English tank-tops, snake-belts, penny-rounds, Oxford bags, Ben Shermans and Rollermania’s shin-high tartan turnups.

Curator Darren Pih spent the best part of the last 18 months putting Glam! together. One particular painting stands out among the exhibition's eye candy. Franz Gertch’s At Luciano’s House shows an intimate world of three Swiss teenagers in the process of dressing-up and transforming into a glam spectacle. Most people thought it was a photo. At first sight, so did I. It’s stunning.


There is installation art, too. Chaimowitz's Celebration? Real Life (1972) had all the expected Glam! paraphernalia...mirror balls, strobes, candles, silver walls with scattered kitsch. Bowie was blasting out of the PA…“Oh, you pretty things…don't you know you're driving your mamas and papas insane” which seemed to sum it all up. It would have benefited from a couple of retro colour TVs replaying TOTP videos of the Glam! Era, but you can’t have everything.

The concluding segment of the exhibition is Amplified Vision, a homage to America’s Glam! phenomenon in New York, Los Angeles and Detroit which spawned Warhol’s The Factory, Lou Reed and the New York Dolls. Warhol’s Factory was the crucible from which emerged Wayne County and the Pork stage productions.

By contrast, Sigmar Polke’s attempt to create the antidote to Pop Art excesses through Capital Realism was interesting, but left me with a retinal hangover after the excess of Glam!’s previous over-the-top indulgences.

By the middle of the 1970s, Glam! had reached an over-articulated critical mass (audience) and was on the verge of a supernova implosion. Taste and fashions had moved on.

Make way for NoddyMake way for Noddy

Little did the Glam! superstars, costume designers, record companies and lifestyle protagonists know that a certain Malcolm McLaren was waiting ominously in the wings, ready  to puncture their pretentious artificial universe and shake youth culture to its very foundations. But that’s a story for another day.

For now, I recommend a visit to Glam! Platforms, feather boas, mascara-glitter optional. Let’s all do the time-warp again.

*Glam! The Performance of Style, Liverpool Tate (Until 12th May 2013) 

And more...

Join Paul Morley on Saturday 23rd February at the Tate when he’ll reflect on the influence of Glam Rock on popular culture, music and performance.

Also, make a date to visit FACT’s upcoming exhibition The Art of Pop Video starting 14th March 2013. Finally, the Tate’s Light Night Wham, Bam,Glam! extravaganza on Friday 17th May.


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Absinthe & TurksMarch 14th 2013.

Sadly the organisers have gone for 1970s-during-the-powercuts theme; much of it is so badly lit I'd recommend taking a torch each to penetrate the gloom.

And a magnifying glass for all those yellowing magazine articles in twilit glass cases full of reflections. A lot of the exhibits are just displays of old tat - battered old l.p. covers and magazines that you can't quite see clearly enough to read - it's more like the back room of charity shop than an art gallery. When the lights aren't working. And someone's got the telly AND the radio on at the same time, both at full volume.

And EIGHT QUID admission?

Absinthe & TurksMarch 16th 2013.

Whoever designed this exhibition really ought to go to the excellently-presented C. S. Leigh 'In Camera' exhibition at the Exhibition Research Centre at LJMU's Art & Design Academy to see how it is done properly.

And it's FREE admission

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