Many people are marginalized in society, but how does the idea of “other” change when we see people in a different light? Corey Pemberton’s latest exhibit at Quirk Gallery takes us into locals’ homes, rich with content and energy.
During recent protests, it’s been especially important to highlight the stories of Richmond’s many diverse communities, especially those that would not have been heard if it weren’t for the hard work put in by all involved with the movement. This sentiment is also true for the newest exhibit at Richmond’s Quirk Gallery. Spotlighting a local artist that has switched up his medium, creature, comfort celebrates those society has marginalized, while shining a light on the concept of “otherness” and the way it interacts with the concept of “home.”
Corey Pemberton describes himself as having always been artistically inclined, and he’s never been focused on just one type of art. “From a young age I was drawing, painting, making beaded jewelry, sculpting clay,” Pemberton said. “It made sense that I landed in the craft department at VCU, where you can explore a plethora of materials and processes.”
It was this point in Pemberton’s artistic career that he drifted away from two-dimensional work, and began to work with three-dimensional objects.
“I worked that way, making decorative objects for about seven years,” Pemberton said. “It wasn’t until a few years ago, while completing a fellowship at the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina, that I shifted back to drawing and painting.”
Pemberton is a mixed media artist, currently living in Los Angeles, who majored in Craft and Material Studies at VCU. His main focus was on glassblowing. Since graduating in 2012, Pemberton has taken on various roles — including Adjunct Professor at the Chrysler Museum of Art’s Glass Studio in Norfolk, and Production Glass Blower working with a multitude of different artists from around the country.
“I spent many years selling my wares on the craft fair circuit, at shows like the VisArts Craft and Design Show here in Richmond,” Pemberton said. “More recently, however, I have taken a break from that life, and have pivoted my focus to this painting practice. I still blow glass several days a week for an artist in Los Angeles, but as far as my personal practice goes, my passion currently lies with this body of mixed media portraits and interiors.”
Pemberton’s latest exhibit, creature, comfort, invites others into the homes of those marginalized by society.
“The work in creature, comfort deals with ideas of ‘otherness’ and ‘home.’ I depict friends and acquaintances who have been marginalized by society in some way, doing everyday things in their domestic spaces,” Pemberton said. “Whether they have been ‘othered’ for the color of their skin, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, I aim to both celebrate my subjects and simultaneously make them relatable to the viewer. By welcoming the viewer into their homes to spend time with their objects, which are rich with content and energy, the subjects are made instantly inviting and intriguing.”
Gleaming with speckles of yellow, neutral tones, and hyper-realistic photos mixed into each painting, Pemberton describes himself through art with his own personal struggles, and prides his artwork for “constantly evolving.”
“Living in rural North Carolina for over five years, I grew exhausted by the weight of being the only Black person, and the only queer person, in the majority of spaces I was occupying,” Pemberton said. “Straight cis white people don’t realize what a luxury it is to fit in.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I love most parts of myself, and wouldn’t trade them for the world,” he continued. “But it becomes work after a while, serving as sole representative for an entire demographic, or several demographics,” Pemberton said. “That said, I view my sheer presence and persistence to join the conversation in predominately white, hetero spaces as a form of activism. And by extension, this body of work is doing a similar thing. The White Box gallery [inside Quirk] is a venue that has historically served and preserved the story of a very limited portion of society. This makes it a terrific vehicle for presenting these ordinary, yet complex, depictions of the ‘othered.’”
Elaborating on the state of the nation right now, Pemberton feels that recent protests have given his art a better chance to shine. He describes the exhibit as being well-received, and notes a recent evolution in the attention his work has been received.
“The strange thing to me is that while [galleries] have been eager to show this work for a couple of years now, only recently has anyone shown interest in purchasing and living with these works,” Pemberton said. “I have no doubt that the current civil uprising in our nation has played a role in my recent success. Everyone is looking to address the issue of racial injustice in our country, and a part of that is showing support for entrepreneurs and makers of color. I think one hundred years from now, art historians will look back on this time as a sort of Black Renaissance.”
As the idea of a Black Renaissance becomes clearer, Pemberton hopes it’s a movement that lasts.
“I hope that this effort by white America is not fair-weather, but rather sustained for years to come,” he said. “Not for my sake, but for the sake of our country as a whole. The voices being amplified by the art world today need to be folded into the canon in perpetuity, so that we are telling a more representational story for the books.”
Thinking on challenges he’s faced when creating his artwork, Pemberton most notably said that it is “impossible” to choose a favorite piece of artwork. He’s working on ideas to combine his glass pieces into mixed media paintings.
“For years, I have been struggling to find a way to connect the blown glass objects to the paintings,” Pemberton said. “They both came out of me, and so there is a natural connection that doesn’t need to be forced. Since my home is filled with handmade objects, they end up often creeping into paintings that are set in my home.”
With Pemberton’s art ever-evolving, he doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. He mentions a few exhibits planned in the future, with a couple back-to-back shows in Seattle, and having the chance to do a few commission pieces.
“The first [show] is at a brand-new space called Das Schaufenster, which is run by my friend Anna Mlasowsky at her home and studio north of downtown,” Pemberton said of his next Seattle exhibit. “The gallery is entirely visible from the street, so it can be viewed while practicing social distancing. She wanted to create a space where she could give exposure to underrepresented artists during this time of inactivity.”
In addition to gallery showings across the country, Pemberton is working on commissions right now as well.
“I’m also about to begin a commission of three pieces, depicting three different Black unsung heroes from history,” Pemberton said. “This will present an interesting challenge of working with subjects whom I have never met. But at the same time, I think it will fit in nicely with what I already do.”
Pemberton hopes his art will give people the chance to view others from a different angle, noting that stereotypes are too often one-dimensional and “extremely harmful.”
“I hope that people leave my show with a new understanding that people are never just one thing,” Pemberton said. “That we are all complex and layered, like these paintings, and worth the time that it takes to understand one another.”
Pemberton wants those who view his work to practice the idea of “thinking twice” before judging those who are not you.
“I want people to realize they were wrong about what they thought they knew about someone, based one their appearance or presentation,” Pemberton said. “To anyone who is reading this and vibing with what I am saying, I want to encourage you to fold this thinking into your everyday practice for the rest of your life. We have to strive for equality and understanding every single day, even after the headlines about Black lives have faded from the front pages.”
View Corey Pemberton’s exhibit creature, comfort, on display at Quirk Gallery, located at 207 W. Broad St in Richmond’s Arts District, until August 30th. To see more new work, find Pemberton and Quirk Gallery on Instagram.