Mark Steven Greenfield: Mantras For Fighting Racism

In the early 2000s, Mark Steven Greenfield began examining the negative effects of racial stereotyping through a series of digital prints. In them, he superimposed eye charts that spell out racist jargon or witty commentary over images culled from his extensive photo collection of white people wearing blackface. In subsequent years, Greenfield has expanded his repertoire of subjects to include portraits of black entertainers who were required to wear blackface to appear more authentically black, racist cartoon characters, cotton fields and Eguns—ceremonial performers who came to the Americas as part of the African slave trade. While on a recent residency in Brazil, Greenfield attended a present-day Egungun ceremony on Itaparica Island off the coast of Salvador.

Born into a military family, and having spent his early years in Germany and Taiwan, Greenfield had never heard the ‘n’ word until after moving to Los Angeles at the age of ten. During his youth, his exposure to negative stereotyping of African Americans like himself was countered by studying with positive black role models at the Otis Art Institute, where he was mentored by celebrated artists John Riddle and Charles White. Such dualities—positive versus negative, black versus white—are among the many binary principles that fascinate Greenfield. They also reflect his transcendental meditation practice, which has enhanced his awareness of the relationship between the conscious and the subconscious, which he suggests “is where our stresses are.” He is particularly concerned with the way images and language negatively affect the subconscious minds—as well as the physical health—of African Americans on an almost daily basis. In an interview with the artist during a recent visit to his studio, Greenfield explained, “Reinforcing stereotypes can have the effect of shortening your life. Blackface is a part of American history that we like to sweep under the rug. It constitutes the shadow, which exists in the subconscious. If you suppress something over time, it comes out and affects you in ways you can’t control.”



Since 2010, Greenfield has referenced the subconscious in many of his drawings, using the Surrealist practice of automatism to create patterned abstract fields that he views as “mental maps.” In drawings such as Little Black Sambo Joins the Boy Scouts (2012), in which a boldly colored cartoon Sambo armed with a gun stands before a black-and-white field of abstract energy, the unsettling features of the foreground image are balanced out by the peaceful connotations of the background. Automatic drawing enables Greenfield to cope personally with the history he is investigating. As he sees it, “These images inform the way I am perceived. In order to neutralize them, you have to engage with them to expunge their power.”    

In his fall exhibition, Mantras & Musings, at Lora Schlesinger Gallery, Greenfield presents selections from several recent series—each installed in a separate gallery space. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by two works from the Egungun series in which Greenfield employs bold colors and frenzied patterns, effectively simulating the chaos of the ceremony he attended, where he had to avoid making physical contact with the shirtless performers carrying sticks, or he would be marked for death (which can be spiritual and not necessarily physical).

Elsewhere in the exhibition, an intimate grouping of smaller works provides an aesthetically sumptuous lesson in history and political consciousness. For his series, On the Money (2016), Greenfield collaged photographic vignettes lifted from Confederate currency over wood panels. Each panel is embellished with emblematic depictions of cotton and energy bursts representing mantras, those repeated sounds that lead one to peaceful states of solitude during meditation. Arranged in allover configurations that appear to float weightlessly, the imagery conceptualizes a view of the subconscious from an African American perspective, while also diminishing the repulsion we might feel towards the legacy of slavery by reducing it to a tiny speck within the vast expanse of the space/time continuum. In their own way, these meticulous collages are small gems that remind us in these difficult times not to lose faith in hope and change.

In the largest gallery, a contemplative installation of abstract ink drawings may help an empathetic viewer to sense something of the sublime psychological freedom that Greenfield experiences regularly through transcendental meditation. Compelling side-by-side juxtapositions of abstracted cotton fields and the cosmos convey a heightened awareness of microcosm and macrocosm,  a sense of our interconnectedness and our place in the universe at large.

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