The most impressive New York gallery debut this season? For me, it’s the dye-on-carved-and-tooled-leather paintings of self-taught artist "Winfred Rembert," now at the Adelson Galleries thorough May 28, 2010.
Mr. Rembert started painting in the mid-1990s, inspired by a book of drawings he’d seen. His wife encouraged him to paint scenes he knew about, scenes from his early life, growing up black in the still-segregated South in Cuthbert, Georgia, in the 1950s.His work includes lots of cotton fields, although in his comments on his paintings, Winfred Rembert has little good to say about working in the hot fields. He got little formal education, as he spent most of his time helping his mother pick cotton, seeing the owner weighing the bagged cotton on "a cheater Scale" as in Pay Off Time (2007).
Narrowly escaping lynching at one point in his life, Mr. Rembert did hard time on a prison chain gang for seven years. He uses rhythmic patterning and dark/light contrasts in Chain Gang -- The Ditch (2005) to create an explosive picture with the central mass of figures buzzing, barely contained by the hopeless, black edging. It was in prison that the artist learned to carve, tool and dye leather to make wallets from another inmate.
Unfortunately, the chain-gang put Mr. Rembert right back in the cotton fields, but at least that experience has now yielded several powerful paintings like Chain-Gang Picking Cotton (2004) with its dizzying play of stripes against large white dots, the cotton boles, one of Rembert’s most important motifs.
Winfred Rembert is just as good at handling vivid colors, which he uses to great effect in describing the exuberance of hearing music in venues from pool halls to juke joints. A local dancer, named Egg, takes to the floor in Egg: Jazz Dancing (2008) while the mood is quieter with a crowd listening to The Five Blind Boys (2009). He also takes us inside his church where people shout and dance in Saved and Sanctified (2005).
Rembert’s memory paintings present a very different world from some other memory painters, like the farmer’s wife Anna Mary Robertson ("Grandma") Moses. Yet Rembert remembers many things that they have in common, like family life, school and friends. He takes us into his family’s kitchen with his mother making a cake with her mouth covered so she wouldn’t inhale flour, his schoolroom where he was in charge of bringing in firewood, and gives us a terrific portrait of his mother-in-law dressed up.
Exterior scenes include a look down the main drag of his hometown of Cuthbert, Georgia, in Hamilton Avenue (2006). A police car watches over the farmers selling their produce and local black stores doing some lively business. Rembert shows us the yard outside his wife’s family’s home in The Gammages (Patsy’s House) (2005), where the patchwork quilts brighten the wash-day goings on.
In Black Masterson (2001), Rembert immortalizes the outsized owner of the only place where moonshine was available, underscoring his importance by allowing him to take up most of the painting’s surface. He struts outside his "café," attired as always in a black suit, derby, and accessorized with a gun. He was famous for carrying a horseshoe, which he wielded rather than the gun when trouble broke out.
Winfred Rembert managed to keep on painting despite several years of medical problems, thanks to the support of Peter Tillou of Connecticut, a dealer known for having a great eye. I’m glad to say that he and Mr. Adelson have backed a winner.
Most professional painters of this period were men, of course, because few women were willing to travel around by themselves to locate customers. Deborah Goldsmith did manage to become a professional artist, while remaining in upstate New York. She was compelled to paint by the prospect of poverty, according to her family, and turned out her watercolor and pencil portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Lyman Day and Daughter Cornelia (ca. 1823-24) when only fifteen or sixteen years old. Besides being a portrait, it gives a good idea of the patterns considered fashionable for interiors during this time.
Woman in a Veil is a watercolor and ink from 1825, but light-years away in sophistication from Deborah Goldsmith’s work. Attributed to Emily Eastman, about whom little is known, she has a grace and refinement that epitomized the neoclassical style.
Another watercolor portraitist only recently identified is Mary B. Tucker. Her charming double portrait of children Learning the ABCs is one of three works inscribed by or attributed to her on view. With seventeen works currently assigned to her oeuvre, the latest research points to her being Maribah Mowry of Douglas, Massachusetts, who married Chilon Tucker in 1816.
Many other women remain frustratingly anonymous, like the creator of a black wool with floral crewelwork bedcover from New England or New York State, one of a small number of these textiles that appeared between the late 18th- and early 19th-century. The floral center possesses bilateral symmetry but the outer floral motifs are asymmetrical. All are boldly stitched and lure the eye around the cover’s still bright designs.
Things produced for the family usually come with a name. Mourning pieces, which Mark Twain complained about being in every middle-class parlor, can usually be attributed to someone in the family. The Hurlburt Family Mourning Piece was probably the work of Sarah Hurlburt, who lines up her female and male relatives on either side of not one but three tombstones in her watercolor.
Female academies, which encouraged the creation of mourning pictures in a number of media, also taught young women to decorate small pieces of furniture in watercolor. Sarah D. Kellogg of Massachusetts, however, tackled a large pillar-and-scroll table, ornamenting the top with a huge basket of flowers and even putting cornucopia on the sides of the feet.
Although women didn’t get a chance to vote until 1920, a crazy quilt by an artist only identified as "J. F. R.," from 1885-90 incorporates political ribbons from several unsuccessful and successful Democratic political campaigns in the mid 1880s. It illustrates women’s interest, if not participation, in elections.
A whole wall of portraits of women, often by men, ends the show. Among my favorites was a Woman in a Rose Dress from Vermont, ca. 1805-15, in oil on a pine panel. Her black lace-trimmed sleeves and delicately embroidered pink dress contrast with the strands of hair hanging from her forehead and almost in her eyes. She looks almost punk as a result. It’s an odd painting, but a stunning one by an unidentified artist.
Stephen Warde Anderson’s small 1990 pastel-over-tempera of Fay Wray as Diane Templeton in ‘Below the Sea’ (1933) is one of the latest pieces in the show, a jaunty, colorful tribute to this film icon.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.