Looking Back in Front with Mark Steven Greenfield

Kahlil Pyburn

It’s a wide, wide world for artist Mark Steven Greenfield.  Its rhythms range from the drumming of Afro-Brazilian religion to the chants of mantra-based meditation; its inspirations, from the comics to the cosmos, from history to futurism; and its concerns, from gang violence to climate change.   

Gemini, 1974, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 48.He is currently working on a series informed by an Egun ceremony of African origin and a series on natural disasters such as tornados, tidal waves, earthquakes and methane explosions.  (The natural diasters series is for Greenfield's participation in a group exhibition at the Blue Roof Museum in Chengdu, People's Republic of China.  He's also shown in South Korea and Thailand.)

Such divergent experiences have been unified over the course of Greenfield's 40-year career and the retrospective of his artwork at the California African American Museum (September 25, 2014-July 5, 2015) reflects the reconciliation of dualities. So its not surprising that the title of the show is Looking Back In Front Of Me.  

Untitled (Cosmos), c. 1974, acrylic on canvas, 36 ¾ x 71 ½.” Collection of Charmaine Jefferson-Johnson and Garrett and Kelsey JohnsonGreenfield's worldliness began an at early age. He moved from air force base to base with his parents before moving to Los Angeles at age 10 with his newly divorced mother.  Passionate about science, he was drawn to solitary experimentation.  One day an experiment exploded in his room.  Facing weeks of punishment, he decided to switch to less volatile pursuits and began drawing.  His mother saw his artistic potential, and enrolled him in a painting class at a local gallery.  

During his teenage years Greenfield made a “somewhat difficult transition” from Catholic to public school.  To fit in he hung around kids who were bad influences and got into minor trouble.

  Riddle, 1986,  watercolor on paper, 22 x 29 ½.” Collection of Charmaine Jefferson-Johnson and Garrett and Kelsey JohnsonFortunately, during this time he began taking a ceramics class with John Riddle at Los Angeles High School. John Riddle was a sculptor, painter, printmaker and, for several years, also a curator at CAAM. Greenfield recalls that Riddle told him, “ You could be a pretty good artist, if you live that long”.   

Young artist Mark Steven Greenfield. Photo: collection of the artist“It was a statement of faith that shook me to the core,” Greenfield reflects, “and I developed a resolve to give up trying to be something I was never supposed to be. ” That “something” was a criminal or a young cadaver.  Most of the guys he hung out with went to prison and some are dead.

John Riddle was instrumental in getting Greenfield into a Saturday class for African American high school students  at Otis Art Institute.  His teachers there were Charles White and Bill Pajaud, in addition to Riddle.  “It was a very humbling experience to be put in a room with so many students who I considered to be more talented than myself, but it was exactly what I needed to get my head on straight,” he recalls.

The symbolic torch.  Detail from Riddle.A turning point occurred when Riddle invited Greenfield to his studio to show him how to use a torch. By this time he was considering being an artist but thought it would be difficult for an African American to express his vision in the mainstream art world.  “The torch burned away any misconceptions I had about my vocation,” he says.  “And with the difficulty of a novice, I began to carefully construct a new destiny.” 

“Crenshaw Consciousness” is a series that portrays the constant change of a person at the molecular level.  One work in the series shows Riddle with goggles and torch and surrounded with vibrating orange lines following the contours of his own form. His face made up of various sized, abstract forms in Dale, 1985, watercolor and acrylic on paper, 23 x 30.” Collection of the Brockman Gallerya style that flirts with cubism.  His top lip seems to unravel and flow out into the universe. 

A profound, pivotal moment in Greenfield career occurred in 2013 when he was exposed to Afro-Brazilian culture during a residency at the Instituto Sacatar in Salvador, Brazil.  It was not his first visit to Brazil however this time he was invited to a sacred Egun ceremony. 

"My experience at the Egun ceremony was nothing less than profound," he recalls.  "I reached a trance like state which in many ways was like the place I reach during my meditations. Mantra based meditation causes the mind to go to a place free of association, where it can focus on nothing but its own existence. The Egun ceremony with its constant drumming and mystery took me to the same place, but by a different path." 

The Egun that Saved Florida, 2013 Ink on Duralar, acrylic 18 x 70” Courtesy of the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New YorkAfter he took his seat he was told that if touched by the Egun, he would die.  Quickly changing his seat, he braced himself against a wall.  For over eight hours, he witnessed ceremonial drumming and the intermittent entry of the Egun priests in colorful regalia adorned with shells and mirrors. The language spoken by the Egun was simultaneously translated into another language. 

Detail, The Egun that Saved Florida“The constant drumming was like a mantra, the ancestral admonitions brought to mind my own studies into genealogy, the ceremony and singing reminiscent of Catholicism.  The Eguns embody incredible positive energy but at the same time harbor an equally potent negative energy. I started to think about positive and negative energies and noticed a through-line of dualities in the course of putting together the retrospective."

Greenfield began looking at  things in contemporary society such as technology, medicine, law enforcement and religion from the perspective of their dualities.  He cites, for example, "the violence of gang members in search of unconditional love" and how "religion gives meaning to life and morals that go beyond law, but over the centuries, many have died in the name of religion."

Voodoo Child’s Last Option, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48.” Collection of Lonnie T. Crawford and family  In Brazil, Greenfield was also introduced to and inspired by the works of Mestre Didi (1917-2013) who was a writer, artist, curator and Egun priest. Didi created works of art inspired by Afro- Brazilian culture using materials like cowrie shells, beads, leather straps and palm trees. In 2013 Greenfield created his own series which uses Egun imagery to comment on current issues in America.  In The Egun That Saved Florida, glyphs seem to dance across the space along with cotton like shapes. Depicted in the forefront is an Egun carrying a gun.  2013 was the year of the case of George Zimmerman vs. Florida. Florida is also the state with the highest numbers of lynching of African Americans.  The artist’s intention is a call for ancestral blessings and protection for living Floridians.

James, 1999, mixed media on wood, 13 x 8.” Collection of Joann and Ronald BusuttilMore work informed by his Afro-Brazilian experience will debut when The Egun Squad opens at Offramp Gallery in Pasadena in September 2015.

Greenfield explores a broad range of themes and approaches. The beginning of the retrospective begins with abstract work from his earlier years. There is an Afro futuristic series from the late 1970s inspired by musical influences like Sun Ra and The Parliament Funkadelic.

“Music has always been an important element in my creative process, " he says.  "It inhibits mundane thought and allows for a more solid connection with the subconscious. The improvisation in jazz inspires in me a fluidity in drawing line that has no equal. Miles, Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic were future thinkers during a time when so many of us were preoccupied with the then present.”

Vague Memories of Cotton VII - 2011, ink on wood, 20 x 16Greenfield’s use of line is fascinating. While using line in a similar manner to traditional masters in creating light, shadow and form, he differentiates himself stylistically by creating his own visual language.  To neutralize negative subject matter, he uses glyphs — various shapes and sizes of lines in the background of his works.  He says each glyph is a mantra and believes that each line he makes is infused with positive and negative energy. (See Jaboobie and Budget Doll below for more examples of glyph-filled works.)

He actively gives life to the glyphs while in a meditative state. As an undergrad he was introduced to transcendental meditation.  “The practice immediately resonated with me because of its basis in the science of creative intelligence," he explains. "It is a mantra based meditation that takes you through levels of the subconscious to the source of creative thought. I didn't realize how much of a through-line there was until seeing my work in the context of a retrospective. The patterns, glyphs and design elements in many of my works are in themselves a continuation of this meditative process in a manner akin to stream of consciousness or automatic writing."

F.T.S. Move on Manhattan, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48,” Collection of Lonnie T. Crawford and familyShortly after he began his self-exploration practice, big changes began occurring within the African American community.  In the late 1980s he saw the destructive consequences of the gang uprisings destroy the potential of many young men under his instruction. "Gang Up" is a series he created in response to the things he saw going on at this time.

F.T.S Moves On Manhattan (1991) in the series is a black on black acrylic on canvas. The gang member (represented by a black silhouette) carries a gun in the midst of a mandala-like shape made out of several glyphs. The glyphs and silhouette are distinguished by the use of thicker paint rising from the flat canvas. Next to the circular mandala shape there is what appears to be a very tall building. This arrangement forces the viewer to slow down to discern the message of destruction illuminated in the blackness.

Crazybones, 2003, ink jet print, 33 ¾ x 23 ½.” Courtesy of private collectorIn the "Blackatcha" series, Greenfield explores minstrel show imagery and stereotypes.  His aim is to cause the viewer to suspend their visceral reaction to the blackface photographs long enough to discover the alternate meaning in the coded text: "We are sometimes so preoccupied with the idea that these grotesque images are about us that we fail to see that it is a more telling statement about them.” The series includes what Greenfield feels is one of his most successful works: Crazy Bones. (Tip to the reader: enlarge the photo and decipher the statement spelled out by the vision chart by connecting the letters and putting
spaces between them to form words.)

Jaboobie, 2012, pen and ink on Duralar, acrylic, 36 x 24.Budget Doll, 2012, ink jet print, 40 x 48” Courtesy of the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New YorkGreenfield continues his exploration of the stereotypes used in minstrel shows within the series "Doo Dahz."  Hit Me, Crazy Eights and Mammygraph and other works in the series houses elements to draw you in.  The large scale minstrel depictions, for example, are almost entirely composed by glyphs.

In the "Animalicious" series (2012-2013) the artist appropriates cartoons from “the golden age of animation” between 1930 and 1959.  In his use of characters from studios such as Warner Bros, MGM, Merry Melodies and Disney, he removes the characters from the studios' intended context and highlights the racist and sexist stereotypes projected by the characters. Even then, he surrounds the characters with glyphs to neutralize their negative energy.

For those artists with a day job who are feeling frustrated because you want to advance your own creative work, let Greenfield be your inspiration. He created an impressive body of work while working in demanding, administrative positions. He was director of the Watts Towers Arts Center and of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery.

Looking Back in Front of Me is sensitively curated by Mar Hollingsworth and accompanied by a catalog available by demand on Amazon. The show and book show an artist’s versatility, growth and self reflection in a wide world of exploration.

The Pushkin Paradox, 2013, acrylic on wood, 6 ½ x 3 ¼.” Courtesy of the artistHe finds ways of reintroducing techniques from one work to another that is rarely seen.

Whether creating glyphs, using multimedia methods or painting in a more figurative way, Mark Steven Greenfield repeatedly challenges the viewer to take a closer look.

Mark Steven Greenfield. Photo: collection of the artist

Kahlil Pyburn is a visual artist (photography, painting and printmaking) and writer.  She received a B.A in studio art in 2013 from Cal State, San Bernadino.