The recent surge of movements for racial justice and prison abolition has brought unprecedented attention to the work of incarcerated artists in the United States. Curatorial interventions such as Nicole Fleetwood’s landmark survey Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration have begun to spark closer study of individual artists, whose under-recognized accomplishments constitute substantial entries in the history of American art. One such artist, Winfred Rembert, is now the subject of an impressive solo exhibition, the first since his death in March 2021.
Spread across Fort Gansevoort’s new three-story location, the show gathers 23 paintings from the past three decades and makes a convincing case for Rembert as one of the century’s most unique and visionary artist-chroniclers of Black American life, alongside such giants as Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin. Quotations from Rembert’s recently published memoir, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South (Bloomsbury, 2021), compiled by the philosopher Erin I. Kelly and with a foreword from Bryan Stevenson, provide context for nearly all of the works.
Born in Cuthbert, Georgia, in 1945, Rembert spent his early years sharecropping and young adulthood laboring on chain gangs following his arrest at a Civil Rights demonstration in 1965. (He briefly escaped imprisonment and survived an attempted lynching.) Though he only served 7 years of his 27-year sentence, he was relentlessly shuffled through the Georgia prison system, forced to reestablish himself with each move. After his release in 1974, he married and settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where he began to recount his life through mesmerizing paintings on carved and tooled leather. The images are lush and dimensional, endowed with an incredible tactility; they seem to rise from the surface, as if coaxed from the material itself. Rembert learned his trade in prison from “T.J. the Tooler,” but only began these autobiographical works in 1996, decades after his imprisonment, at the urging of his wife, Patsy.
The first floor is an arrangement of childhood memories. In The Beginning (2002), Rembert appears as a swaddled babe, handed off to his great aunt Lillian, who would serve as his primary caretaker. She reappears in a richly realized kitchen scene, bandana tied around the lower half of her face, baking sweets for Rembert despite her flour allergy. A favorite teacher, Miss Prather, who encouraged Rembert’s early artistic talent, receives tribute in a schoolroom vignette. These moments of tenderness are rendered in a beautifully muted palette, subtle but assured. Others are less nostalgic. There’s the general store run by three white brothers who kept young Rembert in his place—and, of course, countless hours lost picking cotton in the fields.
Scenes of white violence dominate the second floor. A police officer backhands Rembert in a patrol car; a warden kicks Rembert in the face after the artist intentionally clogged his cell’s toilet as an act of protest. In a striking image of the lynching he survived, Rembert dangles from his ankles, naked, surrounded by a crowd of leering pink faces uncannily aglow against the leather’s natural caramel. This last piece, Wingtips (2001–2), is named for the man who ordered the mob to disperse, identifiable from Rembert’s vantage only by a pair of wingtip shoes.
Heading upstairs to the third floor, you’re confronted with a dour self-portrait of a uniformed Rembert, face carved in a permanent scowl. “It seemed to me the goal of the chain gang was to make you bad,” reads an accompanying quotation. “That’s the Winfred I didn’t want to be. I showed meanness as a survival tool.” In this final section of dizzying and dazzling depictions of life on the contemporary plantation, the works achieve a sustained formal sophistication. The prison uniform’s black-and-white stripes act as a kind of visual metronome, keeping manic time within each composition and across the series. All Me (2002) is a maze of contiguous, laboring bodies, vertiginously repeating and shorn of character, caught in endless toil. One of the smallest paintings is also among the most impactful: at 10.5 by 9.5 inches, Angry Inmates (c. 2007) portrays a belligerent trio with incredible attention to their individuality, eyes alert and raging. Their leader carries a bright red mallet, on which the artist has carved his signature.
This final triumphant round includes Picking Cotton with Boss Men (2007), a dramatic vertical canvas of uniformed prisoners picking cotton under the watchful eyes of horse-mounted wardens. Prisoners blend uneasily with the field, a slab of leather pebbled with hundreds of individually inscribed cotton balls wrought with an almost fanatical patience; undulating countercurrents of emerald-green cut hard diagonals across the plane. In this flurry of activity, the eye is given no respite—it moves restlessly over a variety of dense and competing textures. Despite its local complexity, the composition is perfectly balanced.
What’s most affecting about these works is their frankness, their refusal to compromise narrative or emotional truth while maintaining Rembert’s rollicking sense of humor. Childhood memories jostle alongside tableaux of the Jim Crow South during the fight for civil rights and various Georgia prisons. It all comes together in a modest symphony—a life retold in all its texture and resplendent detail, none of it simplified for easy consumption but straightforward, refracted through a distinct and powerful sensibility. —Christopher Alessandrini
Winfred Rembert, Self-Portrait, 1997. Dye on carved and tooled leather, 32.5 x 21.25 inches.