DIS SUM SHIT
An interview with Mark Steven Greenfield
by Carol Es, WM LA
From the Artist’s Statement: “If you are discomforted by what you see, I invite you to examine those feelings, for out of this examination will come enlightenment.”
“…Hopefully,” Mark Greenfield adds with a laugh.
Mark Greenfield and I have been friends for some years. We have followed each other’s work over the last six years and meet up from time to time to vent, talk about the LA art scene, and eat like hell. This time it was just coffee, and the subject was his new body of work that is currently on display at the 18th Street Arts Center until December 15th. We talked about the reaction to the show and his recent Gallery Talk.
The show is entitled “Incognegro,” curated by Julie Joyce who been directing the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at California State University, Los Angeles for the past nine years. The written materials for the show are an important part of the exhibit, and on the whole it’s been receiving a lot of attention, particularly on the 18th Street Arts Center’s website, where some viewers have expressed strong feelings. But despite some negativity, I think this exhibit is having a meaningful impact upon the community.
Mostly, I love the subversiveness of Mark's pieces. His appropriation of turn-of-the-century minstrel imagery may seem forthright, and for some too sensitive a subject, but Greenfield is not bringing up our dark histories for the sake of shock. The fact that he superimposes the use of eye charts over these photographs is a clue. The viewer is compelled to gaze longer than what feels comfortable, trying to decipher an informal layout of letters:
Is this a trick to get you, whoever you are in the context of your cultural history, to confront the past? Or is it a way to get you to confront the present, and the future?
Take his lenticular pieces of white men in blackface, which change from a positive image to a negative as you walk past, or change your body position, forcing the viewer to look deeper and think, reflect. How do we feel about seeing these demeaning images of African Americans in the context of a slick, packaged gallery setting? These pieces are subversive by design, to lure one in, but the messages are clear.
For some, these works of art are just not tolerable. The 18th Street Arts Center’s website allows viewers to respond, and before I met up with Mark, I decided to read some of the responses and discuss them over coffee.
CE: I was just reading the viewer responses and was fascinated with the guy that felt your show was damaging to people. Since I find your Artist Statement particularly profound, I see this whole thing a lot like therapy. By addressing those uncomfortable feelings and asking yourself, “Why am I feeling this? What’s this all about?” It’s like the first step into growing, and that’s what good art does.
MG: Right. It really challenges the position you take on it. You’re challenged on a different level to examine your resolve, but in some instances, people have stronger positions in their beliefs against it, and that’s okay too.
The conversation we had at the gallery the other night was really interesting, but unfortunately, none of the detractors showed up.
CE: Well, yeah. It’s much easier to hide behind a computer than to show up in person to air your views.
MG: I know, but I was disappointed one or two of them didn't show up. Not that I expected to change their minds.
CE: But you could have brought into question why they feel that way. To me it was such a denial. Being Jewish I couldn't help but think about people who deny the Holocaust.
MG: One of the things I was talking about at the gallery was the fact that if you throw up a swastika, people will have visceral reactions to that. Jews remember the Holocaust; they’re not going to let you forget it.
CE: No, it’s important to remember.
MG: Yes, it is. And what I'm doing here is a lot like throwing swastikas up. I am saying this happened in our past. You can't deny it. And why would you want to bury it to the point where it could come out and bite you in other ways that you have no control over?
I liken it to the analogy that if you kill someone and bury him your backyard; it will inform the way you look at your backyard from that point forward. That yard will never be the same -- if and when you’re planting something back there… I mean, really, your backyard is being held hostage.
CE: That’s an interesting metaphor, especial in terms of your house being you, and what happened in your house will inform your whole being. Your family, experience, culturally, historically – all this molds your world view, and the people who raised you, their experience and history gets hardwired into your view too. I think it’s a very good thing that you are getting resistance. It’s an opening to growth.
MG: Me too. What surprises me though, seven years ago when I first started doing this kind of work, I wasn't getting such visceral reactions to it.
CE: I was going to ask you about this idea of how much the culture has changed in the last several years. Don't you think that there’s been a total change in how people accept satire these days? I mean there’s so much caution around being so politically correct that I just don't remember growing up in the 70s. Maybe the media sets the tone, I don't know, but we had TV shows like All in the Family, Good Times, Chico and the Man, where stereotypes were portrayed almost to make a point. But there’s no way those kinds of shows would ever get aired now because people are too sensitive and fearful.
MG: It’s hyper sensitive. It’s become a self-policing society. Two of the pieces in my show are photographs of Jason White and Aaron White, two African American Cal Arts graduates who wrote and perform in The Dance: The History of American Minstrelsy. We often share hate mail. You should look them up on the web.
CE: I will. I was really interested in what they are doing too and how black people are responding. I have heard a lot of negative reactions of say Kara Walker’s work too. I love her work, but some people seem to miss the point and say it’s perpetuating a negative portrayal of black people.
MG: It’s same thing I hear. To me there is a division to what I am doing though. Perhaps some people who get upset by the imagery also identify with it in some way. In Kara’s work, she makes no bones about it; these are black people in the work. In my work I don't identify with it because these are not black people in these images. It’s not me. I look at it as a historical record. I look at it as something that on some level we have to be mindful of because it represents a shadow of all those things we maybe don't ever want to be as black people, or a shadow of all those things white people don't ever want to be either.
Also, If someone sees one of these things and they don't know I'm black. That’s one issue people have.
CE: I think that’s pretty interesting that that part is important to the viewer.
MG: Right. If we were truly beyond all this stuff, it wouldn't matter what color I was. But clearly, that becomes an issue because if a white person were doing this, they'd immediately be labeled as racist.
CE: I think you’re right about that. Then there are the people like the guy who thinks the work is damaging. That wasn't his issue at all. I think his point is that it provokes a continued racism.
MG: I think people who feel that way are important. They are necessary.
One thing I make a point to do anytime I am addressing anybody about this work, is to acknowledge the fact that some people can't handle it, won't handle it, won't deal with it. And I have to be respectful of their experience. Look, there are some people that are too close to this. They may have grown up in the South seeing this, or are of a certain generation and have very painful memories of it.
CE: You’re right.
MG: It puts me in a position where I have to resist the tendency to defend the work. It’s a challenge. Because anything that you say can be construed as a defense for the work. That’s why I feel I have put out this disclaimer. I don't expect everyone to accept this, and I can't judge anybody that doesn't.
CE: Right. If you are going to be ultimately tolerant of everyone, you have to be tolerant especially of people you disagree with the most.
CE: I wanted to ask you what your family thinks of your art.
MG: My grandmother would have written me out of the will! (Laughs.) It took seven years for my mother to come around to it. Now she’s cool with it.
CE: What do you think your dad would have thought about your work if he saw it when he was alive?
MG: My father was really color-conscious because he was half-white, and it really fucked with him his whole life. He'd question why I was doing it… (pause) He'd probably be pretty angry.
CE: Do you think in some ways that’s why you do it?
MG: Could be.
“Incognegro,” New visual works by Mark Steven Greenfield is on view at 18th Street Arts Complex through Decemeber 15, 2007. For more information, visit: 18th Street Arts ( http://www.18thstreet.org/currentexhibitions.html