Offramp Gallery = 1702 Lincoln Avenue = Pasadena, CA 91103 = 626.298.6931
Artillery Magazine Review 6/29/11
Mark Steven Greenfield
MARK STEVEN GREENFIELD'S NEW WORK — the "Doo-Dahz" series — reiterates and underscores his longstanding interest in exploring an area of the visual arts where tension is created by juxtaposing the content of race and racial stereotyping against historical forms of abstraction. In continuing with this ongoing work based on blackface actors (minstrels and the characteristic masks which they created to perform), he concentrates on an interplay of black and white glyphs, drawn on wooden panels and semi-transparent Duralar surfaces.
Mark Steven Greenfield,
Portrait of George Walker, 2010,
Courtesy of the Artist and Offramp Gallery
The easily recognizable facial patterns of the Doo-Dahz are built up through the meditative practice of layering a multitude of cuneiform and curvilinear marks upon the drawing surface, giving the art a lineage that runs from the automatic writing of early Surrealism to the gestural work of the northwestern metaphysical abstractionists such as Mark Tobey. By keeping the symbolic blackface evident under the swirl of his accomplished drafting and by naming the works after significant minstrels (African-Americans and non), Greenfield puts the viewer at the center of a tension where art can both supersede and be embedded in a larger social and historical framework. In his willingness to engage the pleasures of modern abstraction while willfully insisting on the rootedness of modernism in a painful process of elision and reconciliation, Greenfield consigns a body of work to the viewer where visual and aesthetic complexity are not subordinated to the force and purposefulness of his critique.
Greenfield has described his Doo-Dahz as "placeholders" in his practice as an artist. For the viewer, the transaction is more of a tightrope walk between the usually incompatible spheres of the principally political and the primarily visual/artistic. There is even an instructive dimension to his delving into the often overlooked history of these white and black minstrels. The faces of performers such as George Walker and Billy Kersands are the ineluctable points of departure for his physical dancing at the end of a pen with ink — subsumed in black-and-white freeform line work and yet revealed in the mind's eye and in their historical dimensions.
The counterpoint to the Doo-Dahz are a group of smaller drawings on wood panels where phantom-like figures of minstrels drift in a thin, fragile space surrounded by images of things used in performance such as formal gloves, hats and makeup used to create blackface. In the series titled Vague Memories of Cotton, tufts of cotton are placed throughout the picture plane, conjuring up a dreamy vapor in which the silhouettes of minstrels fade in and out of focus. Delicately colored, these works employ a different tact in reaching the conceptual tension that Greenfield is intent on elaborating.
Together the works on exhibit are forceful without being didactic; they are thoughtful and beautiful. The almost redemptive thrust of Greenfield's work overall is not overshadowed by any lack of criticality or historical significance, nor is the visual sumptuousness overridden by the melancholy of the history from which it is generated. His balance is precarious and in progress, as it should be both for history and art.
- John O'Brien