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As art collectors such as Cynthia Erivo, Lena Waithe, Rich Paul, and Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys snap up his work, gallerist Sarah Griffin remembers how she discovered artist Corey Pemberton in 2019 on a jaunt in Beverly Hills. Her outing that day — a visit with family to the Beverly Hills Art Show, which happens yearly in Beverly Gardens Park along Santa Monica Boulevard — didn’t feel auspicious. The fair is focused mostly on decorative artists and Griffin didn’t expect to stumble across a promising new talent.
“The first thing that drew me to his work is that he puts colors and patterns together masterfully,” says Griffin, the co-founder of the year-old Los Angeles gallery UNREPD with business partner Tricia Beanum.
Pemberton had previously found success in the art world as a glassblower. But he had a suite of new multimedia figurative paintings he had completed, and he figured he’d give it a shot by bringing them to the fair.
“When I first moved here, the art scene felt — not impenetrable — I just didn’t know where my entry point was. But I was very familiar with this art fair scene. I had made a living for years with my glasswork, decorative objects for the home. I thought maybe I could do the same thing with my paintings. I didn’t sell anything; maybe I sold one piece all weekend. It felt like a failure in that sense. But I met Sarah. It turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened for my career.”
Cut to fall 2021 and Griffin and Beanum have staged Pemberton’s first West Coast solo show, home/body, at their gallery (located at 619 N. Western Ave.), on view through Oct. 18. It’s a space with a mission of finding “emerging artists of color, people that no one really knew,” says Beanum. Adds Griffin, “Corey just stands for everything we are about.”
Pemberton’s paintings are rich in palette and pattern, tender in their depiction of their subjects. “They are figures in domestic spaces, and I’m often working with sort of other marginalized people, marginalized by society for the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or socioeconomic status, whatever that might be, and trying to depict those people in a way that makes them relatable but also celebrates them simultaneously,” says the artist, who grew up in Virginia and lives in L.A.’s Leimert Park neighborhood. Some of the paintings depict his partner, Maurice Harris, the founder of L.A. floral design studio Bloom & Plume.
His paintings incorporate other materials including drawing (with graphite and ink), photographs printed on handmade paper, glasswork, vintage fabric, jewelry he finds at swap markets and pressed flowers. “So many things jump out at you and bring these pieces to life. And he does so in a way that feels so natural,” says Griffin.
“I like to think,” says Pemberton, “that the mashup of materials and processes causes the viewer to slow down and consider what it is they are looking at. Is it a painting? Is it a photograph? Is it textile? Is it wood? It’s all of those things and just like the subjects, it’s complex and worth the time it takes to understand. I want people to have that moment where from a distance they are pulled in and curious what they are looking at.” Pemberton’s overall goal with his paintings? “I’m trying to create love for the other,” he says.
The gallerists say they are bowled over by the response to the work, which has also been embraced by Cleo Wade and Simon Kinberg, Elaine Welteroth and Jonathan Singletary, producer Mark Taylor and Griffin Matthews. “He’s attracted a lot of celebrity buyers. People find his work to be really fresh and exciting,” says Griffin. Adds Beanum, “To have that kind of traction so fast is just exciting for us as a gallery.”
For the artist, his current trajectory — represented by a gallery committed to showing BIPOC, women and LGBTQ artists; being collected by collectors who are also people of color — is a stark contrast to his career a few years back.
“My work is going to, like, wealthy Black and queer people which is just amazing to see. Before this I was living in a bunch of small towns,” he says. “After I graduated college, I went to Augusta, Missouri, to work for a glassblower and to rural North Carolina to also work for some glassblowers. When I was making work in North Carolina, I was showing it in all of these very white conventional spaces. I’d been living in these tiny towns and it was getting old being the only person of color and the only queer person and I wanted something radically different. Now my work is getting into the homes of people who look like me.”
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