Mark Steven Greenfield’s “Love and Loathing”
Cal State LA Fine Arts Gallery
on view through November 16th
An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience.~James Baldwin
My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity. ~Arthur Ashe
By Betty Ann Brown
It is only partially true to say that Mark Steven Greenfield creates art about his African American heritage. More accurately, he mines our culture’s visual field to locate–and aesthetically critique–representations that address the constructed nature of African American identity. He grapples with images of presence (how have African Americans been depicted?) and absence (where and how have African Americans been erased from cultural accounts?)
Greenfield’s “Love and Loathing” exhibition at the Cal State LA Art Fine Arts Gallery displays several of his series, including image-and-text pieces based on vision charts; lenticulars featuring vintage photographs of white performers in black face; and, most recently, gold encrusted icons that juxtapose what appear to be medieval depictions of the Virgin and Child as Africans with ironic scenes inverting the otherwise sweet compositions.
Nightmare (2001) is based on an historic photograph of a white man in black face. He wears a tiny straw hat on one side of his head and holds a folded newspaper as he gazes out at the viewer with a mixture of disdain and humorous dismay. Over his body is a pale rectangle limned with a triangle of text that imitates the letters on vision charts. It reads, “WHATCHOOLOOKINATMUTHAFUCKAH.” Greenfield tells me that many viewers can’t decipher the splayed letters and don’t realize they are being interrogated rather rudely.
Hello, Oh Hell No! is a lenticular print from 2006. It’s the stage-like recreation of a domestic interior, apparently from an old film. A crude scarecrow on the left seems to gaze at a male janitor who wears white clothes and a black-painted face. As viewers move in front of the work, the janitor shifts from black to white, and back again. He appears to tumble over his bucket and mop, then disappear, upended, through a door to the right. The ever-changing viewing experience serves as a visual parallel to the way racists have selectively embraced, then oppressed people because of the color of their skin. (It’s okay for African American men to play football–indeed, it is celebrated by our mass media–but it’s not okay for them to protest racial intolerance.)
Burning Down the House (2018) is from the artist’s newest series. It reconsiders the golden icons of the Virgin and Child from medieval Europe, translating the Holy Mother and Son from blonde and blue-eyed (which they never were) to black African (which they weren’t, either). The Virgin is attired in her traditional red and blue robe. (The impoverished wife of an impoverished carpenter, Mary probably never owned such brightly colored robes. Red was reserved for the upper classes of the Roman Empire; blue was considered the color of mourning.)
The Virgin looks adoringly at her haloed Son. Behind them are two arched views into the landscape. On the right is what appears to be a mansion from the Old South, a Confederate flag flying beside it. The columned white house, which explodes in orange flames, becomes a disturbing image of destruction. As such, it undermines the Virgin’s loving, nurturing gaze
The Virgin and Child are painted inside a tondo that floats over the gold leaf ground. Three smaller discs–like crazed chakras–slide down the “spine” of the gold. Each is adorned with Greenfield’s signature marks: calligraphic spirals that animate the painted surface.
Greenfield’s work is as varied and complex as the many permutations of racial intolerance–permutations that have certainly been exacerbated by the White Nationalism dominating our country’s politics today. As someone who is privileged, heterosexual, white, and from a Christian background, I may never fully understand the horrors of racism. But Mark Steven Greenfield’s art forces me to confront my relative ignorance, even as it seduces me with technically proficient and exquisitely conceived visual beauty.
Cal State LA Fine Arts Gallery
5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90032
Monday to Friday 12PM – 5PM