By Bridgette M. Redman
Patrons who make an appointment to see the latest exhibit at the William Turner Gallery may have to look three times at each piece before they know what it is they’re looking at.
Look once, and they’ll see gold leaf iconography that summons up ancient and medieval religious artistic practices adorned with circular motifs that represent visual mantras. Look twice, and there’s Black Madonna and child imagery that evokes Catholic and Byzantine art from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Look thrice, and almost comical background imagery of white supremacists being tormented and killed will catch the eye.
This deeply layered work is what has made visitors to Mark Steven Greenfield’s “Black Madonna” exhibition linger for so long when they come to see the collection. William Turner, the gallery owner, has told Greenfield that when people come to the gallery, they are there for 45 minutes to an hour, carefully studying each piece and having deep conversations about them.
With 17 Black Madonna paintings and 28 total paintings, Greenfield’s work tells many stories of the Black experience. He began the collection two years ago after having a conversation with his neighbors about the dearth of Black people in western art. It reminded him of his experience after graduating college when he still believed the art world was colorblind.
“I’d go to art galleries and they would say, ‘I like your work, but it is so ethnic’—which is code for ‘Black,’” Greenfield says.
It was that sort of experience that drove a lot of Black artists to create art for a white world, he says, but it drove him in the opposite direction.
“That’s never been a preoccupation with me once I understood the lay of the land,” Greenfield says. “Why do I have to make art for white people when I can make art for Black people?”
He has built a career doing just that, from paintings of Black artists in Los Angeles to a collection on blackface. Now comes this exhibit where he has created paintings that live at the intersection of faith and fantasy, of past and future. Each of the Black Madonna paintings have four elements:
Each painting frames the circular Madonna image with gold leaf, a practice that was common in Byzantine art and was used during the Middle Ages for paintings that feature the Madonna and child.
“When I was a practicing Catholic, everything was shiny and gold,” Greenfield says. “It’s an indication of the reverence which people hold these images. I wanted to replicate that, so gold leaf was natural.”
He also points out that icons, which were often covered with hammered metal of some sort, weren’t considered art works at the time.
“Icons were talismans you carried into battle,” Greenfield says. “They were always looked at as something you had to have to bless the house or the family.”
Madonna and child
The dominant image is the depiction of a Black Madonna and Christ child. Greenfield draws upon many traditional images, from the Madonna looking with affection upon her infant to one holding her crucified adult son. In each painting, the skin color of the pair is a rich ebony. “It forces you to come to grip with your own feelings about religion, about the mother and child, about the Madonna,” Greenfield says. “The fact that they are Black forces you into all kinds of analyses.”
While the images hearken onto the historically deep religiosity of the pair, Greenfield’s paintings include several irreverent touches. In one image, the Christ child is holding a marijuana leaf. In another, he is wearing bright sunglasses. “In the case of one of the Madonnas, he’s holding an afro pick,” Greenfield says. “He wants to look good because he knows he’s in a painting.”
The comic elements have a serious purpose in the story the artist is telling.
“I fully acknowledge and embrace the whole idea of humor,” Greenfield says. “I realize it is very powerful in terms of getting people’s attention and getting them to maybe take a deep breath at something. They look at it and are entertained by it, and then they look deeper into it.”
The background contains, as Greenfield dubs them, revenge fantasies about white supremacists suffering the agony they have inflicted on Blacks throughout the years. Greenfield noticed in medieval paintings there was often something going on in the background that was obscure and unrelated to the primary image. It might be a group dancing around the maypole or someone playing a flute.
“Maybe it was intended to be an enigma, a visual redirect as a tool to get you to place the primary object in deeper focus,” Greenfield says.
It was with that idea that he filled the background with violent, almost cartoonish imagery, whether it was Ku Klux Klan members hanging from trees or Nazis being zapped by a UFO. He says he wanted to draw a contrast of hate in the background.
“The whole thing with the Madonna is that the dominant idea here is love, but you’ve got to acknowledge that in the back of that is hate,” Greenfield says. “In order to subdue the hate, it has to be dominated by something.”
It is also his hope that perhaps those imageries can teach people to better relate to what Black people have been going through for centuries and feel the violence, fear and threats that Black people have been feeling since birth.
“For all the atrocities and injustices that have been perpetrated on African Americans, why can’t those be done to the people doing it to me?” Greenfield asks. “Maybe if that happened, they would understand the anguish I go through and maybe once you see yourself as a victim, it might move you to a place of empathy.”
He says he’s fully aware that his work won’t resonate with everyone and some people might get angry about it, but that that is something he has tolerated through his artistic career.
“I will push buttons and push people to think in ways that are uncomfortable,” he says. “The fact that they are thinking means there is the possibility for change.”
Accenting the work on the gold leaf are motifs that Greenfield names visual mantras. When he left Catholicism as a young man, he turned to Eastern religions and took up meditation. These motifs are his putting a mantra into a circle that inspires mediation.
“Mantras are ethereal things,” Greenfield says. “If you repeat things that have no meaning, your mind can’t focus on anything other than itself. I was looking for something that could communicate that. The centers are blank. Nothing is there, but it allows you to focus on the blankness.”
Drawing attention to little-known saints
The other pieces in the collection are done in the same style, but rather than Madonna and child, they are Black people who were martyrs or lived saintly lives. It is this ancillary group of work that Greenfield plans to focus on in the months to come. He says he has three or four more Madonnas he wants to tackle but has been focusing on the little-known stories of African Americans or people in the African diaspora that embody saintliness.
“I’m expanding my definition of what saints are,” he says.
The stories and images are heart-breaking. One is the Brazilian patron saint of the disenfranchised, Escrava Anastacia, who was forced to wear a muzzle face mask and iron collar which caused the tetanus that killed her. She performed many healing miracles and even forgave her cruel masters.
Another is Saartjie Baartman, known as the Hottentot Princess, who was cruelly humiliated and exploited in freak shows and in medical experiments. While the imagery in this collection of paintings has many violent and heartbreaking elements, Greenfield hopes that they are able to affect positive change.
“I would hope that (viewers) would maybe strive to live a more saintly life, to really delve into their spiritualism,” Greenfield says. “I hope that would acknowledge the fact that they have these dark feelings they’ve been able to suppress. But you have to acknowledge them to have the power of these things taken away.”
What: Black Madonna Exhibition by Mark Steven Greenfield
Where: William Turner Gallery, 2525 Michigan Avenue, E-1, Santa Monica
When: Through November 28
Call to set up a viewing at 310.453.0909
Paintings can also be viewed online: williamturnergallery.com