It’s time for a little retrospect here at AWOL – as in looking back in an attempt to take in the whole of something. An impossible task – but you have to start somewhere. It’s also about taking the proper measure of something or someone you thought you knew – loosely, casually, but also in the largest sense. I’m not one to shoot from the hip; but after a few decades of looking at just about every kind of art imaginable, one tends to size up an artist and the artist’s work fairly quickly, in a kind of shorthand categorization and classification of theme, scheme or overall conceptual frame, style, sensibility, media and handling, context and studio practice. Sometimes it doesn’t take more than a couple of seconds. That sounds more arrogant than it is; but it’s really just a matter of economics and time management. We’re not going to be able to see examples of every significant art production, or even the very best of them, the masterpieces – what may eventually be destined for the art historical canon – over the course of our lifetimes. I no longer pay any attention to what doesn’t immediately interest or intrigue me for the simple reason that there are another thousand things waiting in the queue right behind them, and I have only a few hours a day to take it all in.
So I miss things – as I think most observers of the fine arts industry inevitably do, even if they read every important art magazine or journal cover to cover. I was reminded of this last Sunday when a colleague nudged me out of my Sunday Times-papered nest and down to Exposition Park for the closing of Mark Steven Greenfield’s show at the California African American Museum. I was somewhat familiar with Greenfield’s work, of course; and had taken in a show at the Offramp Gallery in Pasadena only a few years ago – which also bore on the perceptions and performances of African-American identity (as well as its distortions, deceptions and exploitations – secondary to the great denial and violence at the heart of American history and the American Holocaust); and so its placement here made a bit of sense.
Whatever preconceptions I might have had walking in were almost instantly vaporized in an explosion (almost literally) of cosmic dust. First of all, regardless whether it took the full compass of Greenfield’s work, this amounted to a 40-year retrospective. (The title, Lookin’ Back in Front of Me: Selected Works of Mark Steven Greenfield, 1974-2014, also implied a certain degree of introspect, which was borne out in the work itself). Secondly, it was immediately apparent that Greenfield had taken the largest possible world-view from the very start. His first astronomically-inspired paintings embrace the cosmos, from exploding nebulae and galaxies to our own dark star. But also in terms of his approach to media, materials and motives, he seems to have taken the largest possible view of his creative domain.
There’s a continuity between the mark-making of his more abstract work, his portraiture – frequently rendered in an exuberantly graphic style, which in turn veers into the domain of performance so evident behind much of his conceptual, identity-themed work. Figure and ground are worked over, sometimes densely (in alternation, or woven through into a more or less unified field) with a kind of abstract calligraphy of not-so-universal symbols, icons and ciphers. This extends to his use of materials and media, whether collage, film or digital media, or materials like coreplast – a kind of corrugated plastic Greenfield used as surface and scrim (e.g., in his Doodahz series); or the painted wood Russian-style nesting dolls he used in “The Pushkin Paradox.” Greenfield’s work navigates the signs and symbols of identity, culture, community, society and state, juxtaposing and inverting implied and intended meanings that function as both masks (cultural/racial/ethnic/gender) and scar tissue in the larger social and cultural tapestry.
In its totality, it was almost overwhelming (at least for a too-brief afternoon). You don’t have to take my word for it. Another colleague (Peter Frank) reviewed the show for ARTILLERY. (You can read the review here.) This was a life’s work; yet – for this viewer, particularly – it felt like a door opening onto an alternate universe; and I wondered if it indicated other doors and new directions for the artist himself. Leaving the show, I had the sense that Greenfield’s ‘third act’ might be his richest.