As art collectors such as Cynthia Erivo, Lena Waithe, Rich Paul, Swizz Beats and Alicia Keys take hold of her work, gallery owner Sarah Griffin recalls how she discovered the artist. Corey Pemberton last year on a getaway to Beverly Hills. Her outing that day – a family visit to the Beverly Hills Art Show, which takes place annually in Beverly Gardens Park along Santa Monica Boulevard – didn’t seem to bode well. The fair mainly focuses on decorative artists and Griffin did not expect to stumble upon a promising new talent.
“The first thing that attracted me to his work was that he masterfully combines colors and patterns,” says Griffin, co-founder of the one-year-old Los Angeles gallery. UNREPD with its business partner Tricia Beanum.
Pemberton had already enjoyed success in the art world as a glassblower. But he had a suite of new multimedia figurative paintings that he had completed and he figured he would give it a go by bringing them to the fair.
“When I first moved here, the art scene seemed – not impenetrable – I just didn’t know where my point of entry was. But I was very familiar with this art fair scene. I had made a living for years with my glassware, decorative items for the home. I thought maybe I could do the same with my paintings. I didn’t sell anything; maybe I sold a piece all weekend. It looked like a failure in that sense. But I did meet Sarah. It turned out to be the best thing that has ever happened to me in my career.
Cut in the fall of 2021 and Griffin and Beanum put on Pemberton’s first solo show on the West Coast, homebody, in their gallery (located at 619 N. Western Ave.), visible until October 18. It’s a space whose mission is to find “emerging artists of color, people that no one really knew,” says Beanum. Griffin adds, “Corey is everything we are. “
Pemberton’s paintings are rich in palette and pattern, tender in their depiction of their subjects. “They are characters in domestic spaces and I often work with sorts of other marginalized people, marginalized by society for their skin color or their sexual orientation or their socio-economic status, whatever it is, and I try to represent these people in a way that makes them accessible but also celebrates them simultaneously, ”says the artist, who grew up in Virginia and lives in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Some of the paintings depict his partner, Maurice Harris, the founder of the LA floral design studio. Flower & Feather.
His paintings incorporate other materials, including drawings (with graphite and ink), photographs printed on handmade paper, glassware, vintage fabric, jewelry he finds in the markets of exchange and pressed flowers. “So many things jump out at you and bring these pieces to life. And he does it in a way that feels so natural, ”says Griffin.
“I like to think,” says Pemberton, “that the mixture of materials and process causes the viewer to slow down and reflect on what they are watching. Is it a painting? Is it a photograph? Is it textile? Is it wood? It’s all of those things and just like the topics, it’s complex and worth the time it takes to figure it out. I want people to have that moment when, from a distance, they’re attracted and curious about what they’re looking at. Pemberton’s overall goal with his paintings? “I try to create love for each other,” he says.
Gallery owners say they are overwhelmed by the response to the work, which has also been embraced by Cleo Wade and Simon Kinberg, Elaine Welteroth and Jonathan Singletary, and Griffin Matthews. “It attracted a lot of famous buyers. People find his work really fresh and exciting, ”Griffin says. Beanum adds, “Having that kind of pull so fast is just exciting for us as a gallery.”
For the artist, her current trajectory – represented by a gallery committed to showing BIPOC, women and LGBTQ artists; being collected by collectors who are also people of color – in stark contrast to his career a few years ago.
“My job is going to love rich black people and gay people, which is just amazing to see. Before that, I lived in a bunch of small towns, ”he says. “After I graduated from college, I went to Augusta, Missouri to work for a glassblower and rural North Carolina to work for some glassblowers as well. When I was working in North Carolina, I would show it in all these very white, conventional spaces. I had lived in these small towns and it was getting old to be the only person of color and the only queer person and wanted something radically different. Now my work is entering the homes of people who look like me.