Artist Spotlight: Carlyn Perlow

I sat down with fellow Mason Gross senior Carlyn Perlow in her studio to talk about her influences and her recent drawings and sculptures. She has a high-contrast and direct style that I like to think of as “Blade Runner Noir” and its roots run deep into a personal history shaped by punk, pop, and Pettibon.


Ed Weisgerber: I see a lot of references to suits in your drawings and your sculpture, how do they come into play?

Carlyn Perlow: I started with the suits after David Bowie passed away. He was a really important figure for me. I wasn’t really thinking about why I was really interested in the idea of the suit kind of being this mystical object that can have someone shed their skin and put on another.

Most specifically, I was thinking of Bowie going from glam to a soul man, and how the costume change changed his music. It started with Bowie, but then it became about a lot of other detached ‘80s pop-stars like David Byrne, Madonna, and Grace Jones too. They all have their own personalities, but they put on the suit and they just become another person. When I first started I wasn’t thinking about alter egos, but as it’s progressed I’ve been thinking more and more about how the suit can transform the wearer and how it can explore a different kind of self.


EW: Something I’m also seeing in the drawings is the use of a grid, is that just for your organization or is it more conceptual than the aesthetic of it?

CP: It’s another one of those things I didn’t necessarily think about when I first started doing it. When I started working on bigger pieces I needed it to be gridded off, and as I was working on it it just felt more natural. I was also talking calc[ulus] at the time.


EW: You have to work on gridded paper in that right?

CP: Yeah, I was struggling and physically working out the problems for calc on that paper and I think that translated really well to working out my problems in the studio in the same way.


EW: It’s almost an arena like space for you, then.

CP: Yeah, there’s also this funny thing about grids and cubes that you can see in textbooks. Diagrams always visually depict the universe in Euclidian space and the grid. No one knows what the universe is shaped like, but every theory uses a grid to some degree to map it out.


EW: The grid itself is so simple, it’s like, how could you break away from something so basic to visualizing abstract concepts?

CP: Now I use the grids to really work through ideas and problems, even if it’s from my personal life. It helps me create a system that can visualize everything.


EW: Those physics book illustrations, have they influenced your drawing in any other ways?

CP: It used to, I started arranging images in my collages the way that textbooks would. It shows more in the ray gun drawings that I’ve done because they’re more diagrammatic than what I’m working on now. But even if I’m working in comic book style there’s always a distinction between the separate parts.

EW: Have you seen the Pettibon retrospective?

CP: Mhmm, I lost my mind! Pettibon and punk rock have been important to me as well as comics. The model of a comic and how people interact with them have been something I try to reference a lot. When I was younger, the first art forms I really related to were comic books and graphic novels. It was the first thing that I felt that I could be a part of. I was from a low-income household so they were super easy to get my hands on. When I was in my early tweens, I learned how to draw a figure by redrawing Catwoman and Batman over and over again. A few years later, when all of my friends were in bands, I started looking at flyers and Pettibon drawings.


EW: Comics have kind of a lowly position in the art world as more of a consumer product. It’s interesting that Pettibon found a way to bridge the gap by doing his graphic style illustrations. Do you think you’re working in a similar space? Or how do you think you relate to the distinction between high and low art?

CP: It’s funny because graphic novels and comics weren’t very influential at all to Pettibon. I want to make fine art objects, but I also want a level of relatability. Even if there is one single teenage girl somewhere out there who could look at this weird, suited character and relate to it, I’ve done my job. When I was younger, I wish I could have been introduced to the more fine arts world that I feel more related to now. I feel like fine art should be more accessible and more inclusive, which kind of feels like a losing battle. But I can try.


EW: I feel like there will always be the prudes and the purists who’ll look down on anything that they think appeals to too large of an audience.

CP: Yeah, and in the same breath punk rock and the comic world are still part of this very masculine territory.


EW: I think as a female artist it definitely is an interesting time to be working. Do you feel any relationship to the gender dynamic?

CP: I can’t completely know right now. I’m not part of the greater world and art market that many female artists have to work in. But while under the umbrella of art school, it’s an environment that’s really good at accepting and accommodating others. At Mason Gross we are a very large community of girls, I feel like I’ve never really been put under pressure by the people here, and all of the guys are super supportive. It’s really great and I don’t want it to change, but it probably will when we leave!

Carlyn Perlow in her studio

EW: You use a lot of text in the work I see. What’s the difference to you to describe an image through text verses and illustration?

CP: I made a few pieces earlier on that were just text pieces. Thinking of words and poetry as compositions themselves, it allowed me a way to follow an unconscious stream more easily than drawing it would. I started incorporating text into my drawings mainly because I was determined to find a way to just have it work. I feel like using letters and words now acts like a brushstroke would in the composition. It’s another tool for getting across the content in the way that I want. Similar to the grid, the writing helps me work through the problems and the questions that I’m working through.


EW: Have you ever gone back and drawn from the texts you’ve done?

CP: Sometimes, not always. Some of them I leave just as word compositions or as prose, others I make a drawing and that inspires me to write something from it. It’s become a big cycle where I don’t know where some of these ideas started.

Follow Carlyn Perlow at @caaaahrl