Studio Visit: Mark Steven Greenfield, Strange Fruit

Mark Steven Greenfield; photo credit Gary Brewer
Mark Steven Greenfield; photo credit Gary Brewer

Mark Steven Greenfield: Strange Fruit

First of all I express sincerity. There’s also that sense of humor, by which people sometimes learn to laugh about themselves. I mean, the situation is so serious that the people could go crazy because of it. They need to smile and realize how ridiculous everything is. A race without a sense of humor is in bad shape.” ~Sun Ra
To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!” ~ Charlie Chaplin


By Gary Brewer
Humor is a way to open the door to another, to invite them into your world with a playful wink, and then get down to serious business. It allows us to ease the burden and shed light on painful subjects. In Mark Steven Greenfield’s case, as he put it, “I use humor to draw people in and then I hit them on the head with a hammer!” Wiley Coyote hiding with his Acme hammer, waiting for the Road Runner comes to mind!

The hammer in this case is the history of race and racism in America. It is a tale told in a rich vocabulary that crosses a broad spectrum of styles and approaches. Using a form of automatic drawing, he creates a field of stylized marks, a “vocabulary” of small graffiti-like patters, that establishes a zone outside of time and space. Within these fields he places imagery that are culled from animation, comics, photographic sources, African religious rituals, street art, etc. He uses each stylistic approach that suits the needs of the narrative theme that he is working on.

Mark is a storyteller, a humorist, a researcher, a genealogist and a master at fragmenting a narrative, reducing a scene to a few elements that suggest a rich and complex story. With a comedic slight of hand he uses an approach that is similar to finding a still frame from a film or cartoon – with just enough information to convey the idea – and allowing the viewer to complete the story.

The paintings are done on Duralar; they are drawn on the surface with a black pen but painted on the backside of the translucent, synthetic paper; a technique he learned as a young artist painting animation cells for cartoons. The satin sheen of the surface affects the colors and creates a subdued tone; the blow of the hammer softened.
His style has a whimsical quality that allows the content to enter through a side door unannounced. But as one looks at the images and his titles, they convey the tragic history of slavery, racism and Jim Crow in America. They flow out of Mark’s hands and soul with humor and heartbreak, comedy and sorrow.

The painting, Consequences of an Unmet Quota, shows a field of cotton – to the right just the end of a whip enters from the side of the painting. It’s serpentine movement creates a psychological tension – animating the space with apprehension. On the cotton is a splash of blood. African American slaves were given a quota of cotton to pick each day. If they did not achieve their quota they were whipped; cotton that had blood on it could not be sold. In this piece, the briefest amount of visual information tells a profoundly tragic tale from the history of America.

Consequences of an Unmet Quota by Mark Steven Greenfield; Image courtesy of the artist
Consequences of an Unmet Quota by Mark Steven Greenfield; Image courtesy of the artist

Mark has practiced meditation daily for 40 years; this practice adds another dimension to his work. His paintings speak to the themes of history and race, but are open to other dimensions, multiple universes of potential that add another layer to the work. Mark pointed out several paintings that have ‘glyphs’, mandala-like circular clusters of his automatic drawings, with an empty space at the center of each glyph. Mark said of these, “The empty space become zones of pure potential for consciousness, for the possibility of a different reality.”

In the painting Crop Circle, he uses his vocabulary of automatism to establish a field that energizes the painting but also creates a space that de-contextualizes the images. In a masterful execution of technique, he leaves negative spaces, which create the silhouettes of cotton pods. It’s a simple black and white painting where one area in the upper left is missing the cotton; there is a suggestion of a circular form, a “crop circle” that creates a mysterious breach in the image. The negative spaces within the silhouettes of cotton have a brightness that, to my mind, also suggests moments of consciousness, epiphanies or synaptic bursts. I mentioned this to Mark, that the piece has a multi-tiered reading. The negative spaces of cotton convey the burden of unending toil, but simultaneously, these voids become a kind of space of pure possibility. Mark responded, “I want to paint states of consciousness. When I create the automatic drawings, it becomes a kind of meditation. The image conveys the world in which slavery existed, which was one reality, but there is also the potential for other realities as well – the crop circle suggests that.“

Mark told me of an artist’s residency he had several years ago, in Bahia, Brazil. “I was invited by a friend to attend a religious ceremony; the “Egungun”, a rite that takes place once a year in which the Yoruba spirit Egun would manifest in the bodies of ‘mediums’. They would spend an entire year creating these elaborate costumes that they would wear once for the ritual and then burn. The ceremony took place on a small island, Itaparica, where I had my residency. Once there, we were led into a building and padlocks were put on all of the doors and windows, leaving no way to escape. Intense drumming began and for the next 16 hours, one Egun after another would emerge, and dance and speak in a voice that reminded me of Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. They would prophesize and inform the followers about the world, their lives and the future. At one point my friend said, ‘Whatever you do, do not let them touch you or you will be marked for death.’ During certain moments, the Egun would charge the crowd and pandemonium would break out. The crowd would surge, people would fall and be stepped on, furniture would break, men with sticks would beat back the Eguns, but several people were touched and would leave to another room, crying inconsolably, marked for death and forced to leave their families and communities. The next day at four in the afternoon we left. Something had changed in my psyche; the experience affected me deeply and altered something in my consciousness.” Once back at his residency he had to remove all of his clothing before he entered his dwelling. They had to be disposed of, to leave behind the spirit of Egun that had penetrated the fabric.

Many of the works that I saw in his studio utilized the imagery of the Egun – the costumes decorated with elements from the contemporary world – to create a commentary of subjects ranging from technology and its positive and negative effects on society, to medicine and the wonders and downfalls of Western Medicine.

Pepto-Punk Angel by Mark Steven Greenfield; Image courtesy of the artist
Pepto-Punk Angel by Mark Steven Greenfield; Image courtesy of the artist

In the painting Pepto-Punk Angel there is a figure of an Egun. Some of the decorative elements of the fabrics and beads have been replaced with bottles of prescription medicine. Hypodermic needles adorn the headdress. The figure is to the right, in a field filled with glyphs, automatic drawing and other elements that animate and generate a psychic energy. It is not a negation of Western Medicine but a questioning of the excessive drugs that are prescribed and of treatments that prolong lives that may not be worth living.

These are compelling works that take the best of the American experience – the melding of different cultures to create new artistic forms – to comment upon its current dilemmas and tragic history. He communicates in a quicksilver stream of improvised images, mixing and blending strands of ideas and experiences to communicate in a direct language.

Mark Steven Greenfield’s work is an American tale told with humor and pathos. Humor opens up the heart in ways that allows stories to be heard. I often think of Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator and of the delicate balance of speaking to the deepest evil with humor and wit; disempowering it and reducing ‘he who would be King’ to a fool who believes he can rule the world, only to have it pop like a balloon. It is the pinprick of wit that allows us to “smile and realize how ridiculous everything is!”


Mark Steven Greenfield will have a solo exhibition at California State University Channel Islands, September 4th through the 24th. He is also in a group exhibition titled “Four Million Angeles” at the Annenberg Beach house, now through April 30th.  There is a panel discussion for the exhibit February 17th.

Mark is represented in LA by Laura Schlesinger

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