Born in Boston, Debra Pearlman received her B.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts and moved to Chicago with a scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute for her M.F.A. She explored the boundaries between painting, photography and drawing-related performances and installations. After graduation, she produced large-scale indoor and outdoor installations in Chicago in the early 1980s, including Rapunzel at Dearborn Station, a proposal for the Dearborn Station Clock tower of cascading braids and moon-like head, and Caught, a large-scale installation of painted sailcloth set into a steel structure, shown against the backdrop of Lake Michigan, part of the first Art Expo at Navy Pier. A one-person show, Conduit, received a critic’s choice review. A project with Chicago Books produced Muriel Mabel’s Magic Wand, an offset print, now in the collection of The Museum of Contemporary Art there and in conjunction with a performance at N.A.M.E. Gallery.
Pearlman moved to New York in the mid-1980s, establishing a studio in Brooklyn while lecturing at The Museum of Modern Art and teaching nontraditional approaches to looking and thinking about visual art as part of the faculty of Lincoln Center Education. One project that developed from these experiences was Changing Demographics, the first of several projects with the Lower East Side Print Shop. Changing Demographics was a reaction to the poverty and racial divide of the city. The project was conceived as a throwaway akin to society’s attitude toward its children; a series of over two hundred brown and white shopping bags printed with the image of a crying baby’s head. Installed in various sites, in grids and pyramid formats, the cast off bags spoke to our culture’s lack of support for children of all backgrounds and social divides. A second version was produced with white and dark cast chocolate and beeswax baby heads, white heads more prominently placed smiling at the top. Her limited edition book, Pacifier followed. Pearlman’s first show in Europe was Boxed Orphans and Security Blankets. Major installations she produced at this time include House of Children, seen at the first Polish biennial in Lodz and also presented in Krakow and New York. In New York, she participated in the Traffic Biennial at Exit Art, presenting an installation of young girls. Printed Matter, White Columns, ACA and Slag gallery, were among many venues.
In the 1990s Pearlman began focusing more on her own photographs and also using them more extensively as source material for ambitious works such as Milk Quilt, a work of five repeating photographs in grid format printed on layers of silk and Misu paper. She made printed editions including Promise, Some Girls, Portable Security, and Glitter Girls. She developed the term “graphic sculpture” to describe the structure and process of her work, such as Boxed Orphans. Double Cry and Sand/sleep, made prior to House of Children, use glass and shadow to house and remake their images in ghost-like reproductions, extending the idea of reproduction to the work, also repeating, over and over as the light changes. In Sand/sleep, a focused shadow of children is cast onto a bed of white sand projecting itself below onto a floor of white sand.
Pearlman produced many hand printed, unique works on paper, producing woodcuts onto hand printed surfaces of paper. These richly physical processes lead to Pearlman’s current work and continuing preoccupations: employing images of children with both clarity and ambiguity, with attention to texture, materials and process to uncover and illicit meaning.
Silkscreen printing and layering of magma, crushed glass, or beads activate the surfaces of paper and canvas, refracting and reflecting light, became her primary medium. Reproduction, repetition, the physicality of process and materials, and the nature of the photographic image became the essential elements of her work, whose focus is the inner life of children. Abstract paintings occupy the underlying surfaces of these printed and altered photographic works on canvas, often four or more unique variations that alter meaning and connection to the image.
Pearlman’s work is in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Brooklyn Museum; the New York Public Library; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz; The National Museum of Crakow; Columbus Museum, Georgia; The Francis J. Greenburger Collection; Art Metropole, Toronto; and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the grants she has received are those from the Peter S. Reed Foundation and Yaddo in 2013; the State of Saxony, 2011; the Foundation for Contemporary Art, Dieu Donné, and The Foundation for Jewish Culture in 2008, The Lower East Side Print Shop Special Editions Grant in 1998, Blue Mountain Center 1989 and Artist Space in 1988. Pearlman lives and works in Brooklyn.