Painter, photographer and caricaturist Robert Carley makes his money as an background actor
Robert Carley of Darien is a most unusual artist.
His abstract drawings and prints that can look like strands of genetic material seen under a microscope regularly win entry into juried shows and take home awards. The biggest so far was the overall top prize in the Greenwich Art Society’s 101st Annual exhibition last spring.
Neither his success nor style are what make Carley an outlier, however. He’s a serious artist who doesn’t conduct himself like one, beginning his aversion to spending solitary hours in a studio.
“I have something a little different about me. I like working in public spaces. I’ll work at a Starbucks or a McDonalds. I’m not into a studio. I think it’s over-rated. A studio is not like a temple,” Carley says during an interview — that true to form is in a busy coffee shop.
Unlike most artists, he doesn’t maintain a website either. “I’m not worried about making money,” he explains. He says he’s “OK” financially and lives in a house he inherited from his mother. He also has income from a surprising day job.
Carley doesn’t teach or work in advertising. He’s an increasingly busy background actor in movies and television. What’s more, he finds it exciting and convenient. As a member of the Screen Actors Guild, he gets the minimum union wage of $190 a day. Often though there is overtime pay and, for Carley, the added benefit of lots of downtime on the set for sketching.
“You wait in a holding area. I bring my materials, my pen, my paper,” he says. “I get in a groove. I feel freedom. I feel something. It’s hard to describe.” For him, the set is another public studio.
Carley began exhibiting and also acting consistently about seven years ago after being downsized from a corporate job. He is now 60 years old, but looks to be of indeterminate middle age. He tends to get cast as a professional person, such as a photographer, lawyer or reporter.
He’s appeared often on the long running “Law and Order: SVU” television series. In an episode of “Jessica Jones,” a Netflix series based on a Marvel comics character, he was excited to get acting direction as a hostage with gun held to his head. In the trailer for “The Family Fang,” a comedy starring Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman, he gets full exposure as a photographer taking a ghoulish portrait. Just before his coffee shop interview, he’d worked from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. on an Adam Sandler thriller, “Uncut Gems,” being shot at White Plains High School.
As for his own celebrity, Carley’s name may register locally because of two other passions that set him even further apart from other artists.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he roamed the country photographing American flags painted as patriotic statements on buildings, vehicles and even people. His documentary collection has been shown many times, including at the Bruce Museum. Meanwhile some individual flag photos have made it into juried art shows.
His other passion is caricature art. Carley has pursued it for so long that he now alphabetizes his personalities by first name and sorts them into groups for exhibit. His list of actors runs from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Whoopi Goldberg. His musicians from Alice Cooper to Willie Nelson. He’s done every president from Gerald Ford to Donald Trump.
Carley operates like an autograph hunter in reverse. He’ll do a caricature, surround it with pertinent quotes he finds through research, then will present it personally, hoping for a photograph with his subject. He caught up with Trump on the 2016 campaign trail and got two photos. He says he likes Trump, but doesn’t talk about it on a movie set.
The attention given his flags and caricatures, and his own enthusiasm for them, can have the effect of seeming to dilute his work as an abstract artist. His mixed talents have been there from the start, though.
While still attending Darien High School he did sports caricatures for the Stamford Advocate. The year he graduated, in 1977, he had two exhibits featuring his abstract drawings and political cartoons. In college at the University of Pennsylvania he had a double major in fine arts and political science.
His family background put him at ease in cultured circles. His mother, Eliane Ame-Leroy Carley, grew up in European embassies, the daughter of a French diplomat. In the U.S, she studied art, became a top children’s dress designer, and then writer on French cuisine.
Carley’s father was a classic “Mad Man” ad executive, he says, who left the family when Carley was five. His fourth wife was Reva Urban, an important abstract painter known for her “shaped” canvasses. When the teen-age Carley visited them in New York, he brought his stepmother drawings to critique and also saw she was not awed by her more famous male contemporaries.
Just as he scoffs at the need for a studio, Carley (who admits to having a work space at home) can be unimpressed by art world trends. “I hate these modern paintings that drip because Pollack dripped,” he says. “They all copied him. To me that’s ridiculous.”
His own influences he has said are the pop artist Keith Haring and the illustrator Saul Steinberg. He says his best in show Greenwich piece reminded the judge of the early cubist painter, Fernand Leger. But Carley says he wasn’t copying anybody.
A devout Christian like his mother, he says “there’s a spiritual aspect to drawing, especially when you do abstracts.”
But he also compares his process to athletes who psyche themselves up. “I do that to myself,” he says. “I want people to see movement, life, surprises, thick and thin lines. It’s like music. You don’t have to have subject matter.”
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.