Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 15, 2012 with permission of the author and the Hudson River Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Hudson River Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Rembert's Rhythm: Pursuing Memory through Pattern and Repetition
by Bartholomew F. Bland
Looking at the works of Winfred Rembert is like strolling through a perfectly composed garden. At first the work is evocatively "natural," and seemingly unstudied, dominated by the raw emotional power of its content. But it gradually dawns on the viewer that the composition has been meticulously and thoughtfully laid out, with a strong underlying geometry designed to enhance the artist's message. Rembert has been categorized as an outsider or folk artist, because of his lack of formal art study. His highly developed skills, first learned as craft gave him the training to thoughtfully consider color, form, and composition and then transmute these elements as he tells a gripping story. The literary critic Anthony Burgess once wrote about an author that, "As with P. G. Wodehouse, Shakespeare, and with Faulkner, we should rather think of the building of a world than the production of a series of separate items. With each book, we re-enter [that] country". Winfred Rembert, like all true artists, shows us his world through his own eye's memory.
Rembert personal narrative is so compelling, his demeanor so engaging, and the subject matter of his work so strong, that it is important to remember that he is an artist, not just a chronicler or social historian. For Rembert as an artist, there are links to two very particular elements. One, he works in the tradition of the "outsider" artist, not trained in mainstream methods, who achieves success in unorthodox ways. Rembert's background could not predict that he would make his mark in the world of art. As a young man, he drifted, and met head on the most hardscrabble aspects of rural life in the South. Like the "Highwaymen," outsider artists who have a long tradition of selling their art on the highways and byways of Florida, Rembert's work, in recent years, has been embraced by the art world for its vitality and folk tradition.
Key to Rembert's work is its medium. Like another contemporary African American artist, Whitfield Lovell, who creates his drawings and tableaux on "found" wooden planks, Rembert chooses an unorthodox pallet -- dye on leather. Using this pallet, he creates a body of work vividly reflecting his past and his vision of history
To see a Rembert show is to see the world in unique presentation. Each painting can stand alone, but together they are cogent body of work. His paintings are linked in artistic style, and also in subject. The most powerful of them are variations on a single theme. Many artists like James McNeill Whistler with his Nocturnes and Symphonies and Piet Mondrian with his Broadway Boogie Woogie consciously connect the rhythms of music to painting, to evoke through our eyes the emotions of sound. So too does Rembert, who embeds the powerful call of gospel and blues music into his art.
Rhythm, repetition, and pattern are used to underscore Rembert's major themes. His paintings are strongest when these repetitive elements abstract the artist's own experience into formal compositions, most notably in the cotton-field and chain-gang paintings. Rembert's images of the individual figure are powerful and often freighted with his biography but those images that sustain these overall themes of rhythm, repetition, and pattern imbue his work with haunting of his past. Like so many artists, Rembert returns again and again to a set of key memories, tilling the soil of experience to achieve an understanding of life that is both therapeutic and provocative. Every generation of artists seeks to crystallize their most transformative memories and share them with a younger audience.
Listen to Rembert speaking and you are taken back through his lifetime of experiences. His origins in Georgia, his sense of a strong small-town community, his labor-filled childhood, his time on a chain gang, and his near lynching are seminal events to which he returns over and over, varying the artistic details as he recollects and reworks those experiences, transforming them in art.
Significant paintings depict his memories of childhood and young adulthood in Cuthbert, Georgia, and include his town's social scene, worship, and those of lynching and violence, and other single-themed paintings. Rembert grew up in the segregated south, as did Romare Bearden a generation before him, who frequently referenced his childhood in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina as source material for his art.
His different series illustrate repetition in his art as the inextricable link to memory. In particular, his Cotton series defines both his own youth and the South in the years of agricultural harvest before widespread industrialization. Perhaps Rembert's most iconic paintings are of the cotton fields of his childhood and young manhood, with frightening focus on his time on a chain gang. The creative products are cotton field paintings from his youth, cotton field paintings of chain gangs, and non-cotton chain gang paintings. The three themes overlap like a sophisticated Venn Diagram of brutal labor under harsh conditions. The fact that they are all key to a history that he revisits demonstrate that even as he etches his memories onto leather they are etched in his memory.
Of his cotton field series, one of his masterpieces [and the cover of this catalogue] is Cotton Field Rows, a masterful abstraction in which the individual is subordinated to the composition of the whole. The perspective is unclear, viewed simultaneously from above and behind. Like the Cubists, Rembert plays with perspective, taking away the obvious horizon line. The workers, seen from behind dragging their cotton sacks, are nearly larger than the figures themselves. With few faces visible, the black hats of the workers are a sea of black dots that contrast with the white bolls of cotton held up by the workers. Red clay soil and white rows of cotton, make a formal arrangement of rays that suggest a rising sunburst that is expanding beyond the top borders of the canvas, seemingly all the way to heaven. There is a hopefulness to the painting that is activated by the simultaneous rising arms of the workers, suggesting not just cotton picking but riot and protest, an idea enhanced by our knowledge of the time.
Picking Cotton shows the cotton bolls held high overhead by the workers in triumphalist pose, as though claiming victory as they march together. Determined, they push forward with their sacks, faces obscured. Rembert, though, delineates carefully the green leaves of the cotton plants. Their heart-shaped motif scattered across the picture is the tool that creates humanity of the pickers.
In Picking Both Ways other field hands trail cotton bags behind them that appear black, weighted spectral spirits that impede them. Here the red clay rows found in Cotton Field Rows become cool green lines. Between the rows, the figures move in an orchestrated rhythm, almost a choreographed minuet. The analogy to tight choreography is not misplaced, as Rembert has discussed the formal attractiveness of the cotton field, in spite of its back-breaking labor. He says: "I must admit that the cotton field was a pretty place. The farmers did a beautiful job of patterning the rows, so if you happen to ride by or pass a cotton field it's a beautiful sight. Some rows to the left, some to the rights, and some straight. I was always an angry cotton picker, 'cause I wanted to go to school."
Picking Cotton, Rows to the Right, changes the hues, so we see the rich contrast of rich brown stripes against the verdant green of the cotton plants. The dense formal patterning that Rembert creates in his cotton fields is reminiscent of the formalized patterns of Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Rembert's figures, bent in labor, are curved, mimicking the rows of the cotton fields themselves. In Picking Cotton, Rows to the Right, he allows colorful costumes and cotton to activate the picture, in which the cotton bolls are the dominant, circular element. Picking Both Ways has a serpentine pattern, as the rows reflect the twisting lines of pickers and of cotton, giving a distinct stamp of visual movement and beauty to a subject not often thought to be particularly aesthetic. There is a tremendous sense of the space of these paintings being very graphic and very carefully constructed, a sense that is reinforced by Rembert's careful directions specifying "left" or "right" in the paintings' titles.
Rembert's The Overseer is a panoply of color and movement. Unlike the regimented rows and gestures in his prison paintings, the overall feeling is cotton flowing down from the top of the canvas in a sea of white foam, rather than the distinct individual cotton bolls that appear in other paintings. The impression is that all of the figures, including the overseer, are subordinate to King Cotton, and that they could all be swept away by a torrent of the South's great cash crop. Cotton is presented like water in a baptism, and like those standing in the baptismal waters, the workers are immersed in their environment. There is a greater sense of individuality in the figures on this canvas, not only in their costumes but also in their sizes and shapes, and we see, too, men and women and their ages. The overseer rides a horse which singles him out and places him above the workers. The ominous telltale butt of his rifle on the horse's flank, suggests unbending social control of humanity even in the midst of the great ocean of cotton.
Dinner-Time in the Cotton Fields is the first of Rembert's cotton-field works, and the figures are not as abstracted as they would later become, but the patterning is already in place with rows of cotton as well as rows of baskets. Additionally, the leather incising, which is very much on tactile surface, shows that only portions of the picture are dyed: baskets the figures sit on are incised leather. Rembert uses natural reddish-brown tanned leather to suggest the red soil of Georgia's cotton fields, and the large baskets of cotton heaped about suggest a break from the daily toil. But the respite from toil is momentary. The title indicates that their labor is suspended, not over, and the overseer looms to monitor the time spent away from work.
What's Wrong with Little Winfred? is a tribute to the power of memory. The sheet flying in the background immediately draws the eye, leaving us to wonder whether it is a white flag of surrender, a subtle indication of the Klan in south Georgia, or an abstract icon. In fact, Rembert has said the sheet was used as a signal to his aunt working in the fields if anything was wrong with him as a baby. The painting shows her pointing in alarm at the raised white flag, alert to the need for help.
Hard As I Can is a more simplified composition of only six figures. They are depicted in greater detail than the figures in many of the cotton pictures and together comprise a swirl of movement. Even the title contributes to the idea that there is individual spirit in this painting. The cotton bolls are larger and the pickers, too, fill a greater part of the canvas.The Good Ole Boys is another departure from the other cotton-field paintings because the pickers are peripheral to the main action, which is the high-spirited stable boys joyriding the horses and showing off for the field workers. The same motifs of cotton bolls and undulation are present but they are marginalized by the movement of the larger figures of horses and riders in multiples who advance in a group.
The Struggle is a monumental canvas depicting Barack Obama looking upwards and surrounded by historical figures, each knee high in cotton and each burdened with a huge cotton bag, and yet it is a picture of triumph over struggle. Individual iconic figures of the civil rights movement engage us, each with a story to tell, as viewers consider their own knowledge of the period to the painting in which civil rights leaders, sports heroes, and musicians mingle.
It is a truism that music has been a sustaining element in the Black experience in the South. The tradition of spirituals and the birth of the blues, and music's importance to the workers Rembert delineates is expressed by him in Come By Here, My Lord and Amazing Grace, which show music's importance by musical staffs and notes superimposed on the works. The hymn Amazing Grace is significant as the title for one of Rembert's paintings because it was written by a reformed slave trader, John Newton, and is beloved in African-American music:
In both paintings the figures sing lustily, their song a rallying cry to get them through the day's labor. The picture plane in compressed and the music notes that are superimposed over the figures create a claustrophobically distinct pattern and contrast to the cotton bolls that flood the images.
Chain Gang Picking Cotton segues into the chain gang theme, showing its subjects seemingly from above, but the faces of the men are visible, and their profiles and eyes, if not exactly particular to them, make us aware of them as people and aware of the human element of the toil. Whereas some of the other cotton-field paintings are more detached and abstract, there is an intimacy about Chain Gang Picking Cotton because the people are shown leaving us to ponder their individual stories that are so similar, melding the individual and the universal experience. One wonders by which path each man ended up part of a living, yet anonymous, chain gang. The uniforms, with their identical patterning, are designed, like all uniforms, to subvert the individual to the larger group, and the men in the paintings are seen first as prisoners, and only then as people.
By contrast, in the chain gang picture Picking Cotton, Rows to the Left #2, Rembert subordinates the round cotton bolls and allows the grid of black and white bars on the prisoner uniforms to become the dominant visual element. This painting is very abstract. If you view it from a distance, it has a strong association of performers in an arena. Rembert uses the undulating lines of the green stripes of the grass to create movement, so all his figures, viewed from above, appear serpentine. We are left with the impression of an aerial view cropped dramatically, a tiny portion of a much larger field.
Rembert drains color from Picking Cotton, Rows to the Left #2, leaving black, white, green, brown, and gray. His work shows chain gang members picking cotton in their monochromatic black-and-white outfits, making clear that Rembert is aware of the striking properties of black and white and of the various design elements to be made from them. He recognizes the visual power of black and white clothing, just as Cecil Beaton interpreted the striking black-and-white Ascot scene in the film My Fair Lady. Similarly, the 1930s movie poster for I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! (see page __) shows the same awareness of the boldness and graphic design of black and white.
In a further exploration of the chain gang theme, Rembert pushes the formal properties of abstracted pattern and design to its limits in All Me and All Me II. Rembert's titles suggest his solitary experience within stifling group:
The labor of the cotton fields is dispensed with and we see a riot of stripes, staring eyes, and raised sledgehammers -- showing the backbreaking labor of breaking rocks in the hot sun. But there is no organized method for us to see. Work on a chain gang, which demands careful coordination by those chained together, here is replaced by an almost chaotic sense of individual movement, most notably in All Me II. The main portions of the figures' faces that we see are the whites of their eyes full of horror leaping out at us, giving the whole composition a Dante's Inferno-like pall. Rembert, in this painting, also transmits a sense of vigor. The writhing, almost interlocking, forms look as thought they might have been drawn by M. C. Escher. The prisoner's vigorous movement makes us think of man as machine, of man as industrial worker subordinated to his labor.
Angry Inmates differs from the other chain gang paintings, despite its subjects being dressed in the stereotypical stripes, because it is an up close depiction of prisoner rage. The three prisoners here are not stylized abstractions. Palpably angry, as indicated in the title, they confront us directly as three individuals, rather than as a field of pattern. Dress is the repetitive pattern and there are three protagonists not one, all variants of the artist's personae. Rembert clearly views himself as one with all of the other prisoners, subsumed into a greater whole.
Leaving the cotton-field/chain-gang paintings, there is a series of portrayals of both lively private life and difficult public life in Georgia. Representing aspects of the are two paintings, Queen Bee and Queen Bee and the Blues, the former of which contains a multicolored, diamond-shaped patterned stage, which bisects the setting into the top half belonging to the performers and the bottom half belonging to the audience. This perspective of the audience, in which the viewer is placed low, down near the footlights, and looking up at the stage, is reminiscent of Edgar Degas's Café Concert at Les Ambassadeurs 1876-1877, as well as of many of Toulouse Lautrec's representations of fin de siècle Parisian nightlife. The moving forms, especially the woman clapping her hands above her head in the foreground, are a secular vision of some of the ecstasy shown in the religious pictures. Rembert draws on the continuum of music in both the religious and secular worlds. Rhythm is not just a musical term but may also applies to the visual. The element of syncopation shows in many of his paintings -- cotton bolls, staccato notes, actual musical performances, and the overall sense of rhythmic movement -- are strong elements in his most powerful paintings.
In Queen Bee and the Blues, Rembert uses dramatic patterning in the blue-and-black tile floor and in the blue brick wall. Similar tile patterning appears in Sugar Cane (Patsy's Mother), acting as a decorative foil for the figure in the foreground, where his enthusiasm for pattern becomes the dominant element of the painting , a penchant that can perhaps be traced to his artistic career begun in prison making utilitarian objects such as belts and wallets with a high degree of pattern on them, which was essential to the form. In Queen Bee and the Blues, he contrasts the the rigid geometry of the wall pattern with the sinuous line of the singers and the microphones and the curves of the double bass reflect the Cyma curve of the female form next to it. In a kind of verbal pun, blue becomes the predominant color in Queen Bee and Blues.
Blue, in fact, becomes a running repetition in some of the social paintings: Strong blue tonalities appear in James Brown providing both the background; Mary Douglas is sitting in a royal blue chair that forms the center of her painting Mary Douglas, while Patsy's Beauty Shop repeats the blue theme, punctuated by patrons dressed in white. Similarly, the painting Raincoat Red is, in fact, ornamented with several blues.
In Inside Homer Clyde's the patterning of the scene is viewed from above, and Rembert's repetition of six pool tables scattered with colorful billiard balls form the center of the painting, and the customers in a row on the barstools create a strong horizontal line, while the triangle of the billiard balls in the rack in the center provide contrast. The geometry of the canvas is broken by the pool cues at odd angles, a device repeated in the painting Raincoat Red. Both Raincoat Red and Inside Homer Clyde's use billiard balls as repetitive decorative motif in much the same way that cotton bolls were used in the cotton field paintings and both works have tilted planes with skewed perspective. As a folk or outsider artist, Rembert relies in his work on planes and blocks of color for his figures, as opposed to the fully volumized human forms of more formally trained artists.
Homer's Café, Jeff's Café, and Homer Clyde's Café, which proudly declares it has a pool room but warns that it is "Colored Only," all depict community meeting places that are modest and unassuming, but lively. There is a dichotomy in these pictures between the convivial social life and the difficulties of daily existence lived in the same place. The warmth of being in one's group compared to the threat from outsiders, as exemplified in the paintings of violence is very noticeable. While many of Rembert's memories are negative, there are those that are invitingly nostalgic. Living in New Haven, away from Georgia, has given him the both the time and the distance to contextualize and process his early experiences. Hence, the differences in his artistic presentations.
The Deputy is anything but nostalgic. It is terrifyingly immediate and points to harsh treatment at the hands of the so-called law in the South of Rembert's youth, an evocation of memory by unusual patterns of squares that take the place of simple vertical bars. The viewer is held away from the action, at a distinct remove, and the deputy is, symbolically, much larger than his victim. The Walk illuminates the well-known "perp walk" of any prisoner but this walk carries the historical and emotional meaning of being black in the South, as the weight of the legal establishment is brought to bear on the undersized, manacled figure surrounded by armed men, surely an overreaction to a prisoner already in chains. The third painting simultaneously combines terror and relief in the title of Almost Me, the two emotions that strongly balance its presentation, based on Rembert's memory of his own narrow escape from lynching and his first-hand witness of prior lynchings. At its starkest, it is a horrifying painting, the precursor of his lynching triptych The Lynching; After the Lynching; The Burial.
Even in his most harrowing works, which deal with a lynching Rembert witnessed as a child and his own experience with a near-lynching, pattern and repetition in this triptych form a background of formal cohesiveness and provides connective tissue to his works, helping to focus his artistic endeavor. In his ambitious The Lynching; After the Lynching; The Burial, the row of cabins and the hanging bodies, call to mind Billie Holliday's haunting musical recording of Strange Fruit:
Using repeating patterns in both the first and second panels, Rembert's trees form natural crucifixes that evoke Christ's crucifixion. The simplified forms of his figures add to the tragic power of the composition, which recalls many early Renaissance works of crucifixion or lamentations, such as The Crucifixion of Christ (The Kaufman Curficixon).
Rembert's strongly religious upbringing plays a definitive role in shaping his art, and The Baptism plants its converts firmly in water that is reminiscent of the seas of cotton shown in other paintings. Here, women's heads are covered, while men's are exposed, and all join the company of the saved. The archetypal figure in white on the bottom right in Christ-like pose is vividly reminiscent of the central figure in white in Francisco Goya's The Third of May 1808.
In Saved and Saintified, frenetically styled figures all point their clasped hands in a same direction, leading the viewer's eye directly to the altar. Technicolor clothing further punctuates the canvas and the parishioners form repetitive visual points as they curve their arms upward in joy. The four men at the altar are in stylized positions, and overall, there is a feeling of liveliness, hopefulness, and great activity.
Similarly, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms shows a lively, brightly dressed congregation, some dancing with joy -- the congregant in the white suit draws attention away form the preacher gesturing in the pulpit. In I Got the Holy Ghost II a much more central white cross on a red background leaps out at you. Whereas in Saved and Santified there is a concerted focus towards the stage, Rembert shows us chaotic revelry in I Got The Holy Ghost II. In the first painting, the congregation's faces are obscured from the viewer and directed to the men on the platforms. In I Got the Holy Ghost II, several of the parishioners turn their faces toward the viewer. Located directed below the crucifix, the hatted woman in blue mimics the crucifixion with her outstretched arms. Mouth open, she helps lead the crowds in emotional response. There is a performative aspect to all of these religious pieces, in which Rembert suggests the full engagement of the congregation, shown by the many figures in these three paintings, who have their arms raised in prayer to form graceful curves. Reminiscent of Jacob Lawrence's The Book Genesis series, there is a flattening of the picture plane and we see bold use of color in the fervid congregants and charismatic preachers.
In the final analysis, Rembert's art both relies on and transforms his subject matter, a point made very well by Terence Clarke:
While Rembert the social historian and Rembert the leather craftsman are both important parts of the whole, it is Rembert the artist who gives those talents the animation capable of turning them to art. Seen as a whole, Rembert's work is unique, compelling, and expressive -- three elements that define both the art and the man.
About the author
Bartholomew F. Bland is Director of Curatorial Affairs at The Hudson River Museum
About the exhibition
Winfred Rembert: Amazing Grace, on exhibit at the Hudson River Museum January 21, 2012 - May 5, 2012, is the first major museum exhibition dedicated to this remarkable mid-career, self-taught artist. The presentation emphasizes the dramatic, overtly biographical nature of Rembert's work, combining artistic inspiration with documentation of some of the most tumultuous moments of Civil Rights-era history.
Rembert was raised in the 1950s in the pre-Civil Rights era of rural Georgia, where he worked at backbreaking labor as a child in the cotton fields. He was arrested after a 1960's civil rights march and survived a near-lynching before unjustly serving seven years in jail. It was while he was in jail that he observed a fellow inmate create tooled leather wallets, that he first learned the craft of hand-tool leather to create unique patterns and design. Years later, at the suggestion of his wife Patsy, Rembert began developing narratives and the stories of his youth into colorful tableaux on sheets of tanned leather that conjured a vanished world in which incredible brutality and close personal ties existed in discomforting proximity. (right: Winfred Rembert, Saved and Saintified, 2005, Dye on carved and tooled leather, 33 _ x 43 _ inches. Permanent Collection / Richard M. Ross Art Museum / Ohio Wesleyan University / Delaware, Ohio)
The exhibition is divided into several major thematic groupings including a cotton field series, in which the never-ending cotton balls appear as kind of relentless southern snowball, snaking their way in endless, wearying rows threw hoards of weary workers. As the artist has noted: "curved [cotton] rows make a beautiful pattern. But as soon as you start picking, you forget how good it looks and think how hard it is. There just isn't anything you can say about cotton that is good." Another section of the exhibition explores the lighter side of Rembert's childhood memories of small town of Cuthbert, Georgia, populated in his canvases with an unforgettable gallery of characters. On view are scenes from the local pool hall, jazz club, café and church meetings.
A resident of New Haven for the past three decades, Rembert's work has been championed by Jock Reynolds, Director of the Yale Art Gallery, which has shown his work and acquired a key large-scale piece for the Gallery's permanent collection.
The exhibition of more than 50 original works created from stretched, stained, and etched leather as well as historical photographs depicting locations from Rembert's life in and around Georgia are included in the presentation. The exhibition galleries also include the debut of a new documentary All Me about Rembert's life, directed by noted filmmaker Vivian Ducat. Traditional gospel music, the performance of which is a central element of Rembert's life, are represented in recordings, and the artist will be in residence on selected dates in the galleries to perform traditional gospel songs a cappella, such as Amazing Grace, live for the museum's visitors and discuss his life experiences.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, which includes essays by Bartholomew Bland, Roger Panetta, the museum's Adjunct Curator of History and History Professor, Fordham University, and Ellen Keiter, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Katonah Museum of Art. Rembert's work is currently the subject of a dissertation by Fordham Ph.D. candidate Clifton Watson, and the catalogue includes an essay co-authored by Watson and Irma Watkins-Owens, Associate Professor, African and African American Studies, Fordham University.
This exhibition is organized by the Hudson River Museum and is curated by Bartholomew F. Bland. A national tour of the exhibition is currently under development for 2012-2013:
(above: Winfred Rembert, Cotton Field Rows, 2009, Dye on carved and tooled leather, 38 _ x 30 _ inches. Collection of Jan and Warren Adelson)
(above: Winfred Rembert, Picking Cotton, 2005, Dye on carved and tooled leather, 30 x 44 _ inches. Courtesy of Adelson Galleries, NY)
Resource Library editor's note
The above exhibition catalogue essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 15, 2012, with permission granted to TFAO on February 13, 2012 by the author and the Hudson River Museum.
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