at William Turner Gallery, Los Angeles (through 28 November)
Reviewed by Lita Barrie
Mark Steven Greenfield’s powerful exhibition of Black Madonna paintings, currently on view at William Turner Gallery, is perfectly timed to coincide with the election of the first woman of color, Kamala Harris, to be our next Vice President; while the exhibition notably follows on the years-long Black Lives Matter protests that in all likelihood lifted Ms. Harris to the second highest office of the land.
As an African American artist who emerged out of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s, Greenfield has had a long arc of making art of consequence, art with something to say, art with teeth. In his latest exhibition, Black Madonna, Greenfield takes dead aim at centuries of racial supremacy by inverting the very narrative of white dominion: exalting Blackness while simultaneously setting aflame, quite literally, the relentless tide of teeming inhumanity that seeks in all-too-horrific ways to subjugate and enslave.
Early Black Madonnas found in Europe during the Middle Ages are the subject of scholarly debate because some were created accidentally by candle smoke in churches that blackened the paint, but others were created purposely to appeal to colonized people. Some Black Madonnas were carved out of wood which darkens in a natural aging process, making them more precious than other Madonnas because they were rare. Their transformation was viewed as miraclulous, and they became associated with metaphoric new beginnings, perhaps much like the renewed sense of hope from our recent, hotly contested presidential election. Greenfield, then, reclaims these ancient images to redefine Blackness for our times.
Greenfield’s meticulously crafted works are painted in a Byzantine style, using the circular tondo geometry surrounded by gold leaf and references to classical Madonna paintings by Da Vinci, Raphael and Bellini. His re-imagined Black Christ child is depicted laughing with his mother, wearing yellow sunglasses, holding a dynamite stick and clutching a cannabis leaf. In the background, white supremacists are cast as subjects for gruesome retribution — eye-for-an-eye payback for the flesh-and-soul warfare waged against Blacks since time immemorial. Hooded Klansmen, in these depictions, are strung up and precipitately torched. Antebellum plantations burn. Confederate monuments are toppled. Neo-Nazis are zapped by UFOs.
One large triptych, Collateral (2020), references Michelangelo’s Pietà, with a reclining Black Madonna lamenting the death of her adult son, whose designer sneakers are piled at her feet.
Greenfield also reclaims heroic Black personages and triumphant events in the history of Black resistance through his portraits of Toussaint Louverture, a Haitian liberator, and Escrava Anastacia, a Brazilian slave muzzled because of her renowned beauty, who later became a popular saint.
In a side gallery, Greenfield commemorates the tragic massacre of 130 slaves thrown into the sea from the slave ship Zong, which fueled the abolitionist movement. Greenfield uses skillful pattern-making in a painting of falling bodies and glyphs named after Zong, evoking a symbolic graveyard for the victim’s souls still buoyantly adrift on the ocean floor.
Greenfield studied art under the legendary Charles White, who told his students that if they were unable to pray to a painting, they should not paint it. Indeed, these paintings have the devotional power commanded by both inner and higher authority, while the subverted/subversive racial subtexts are charged with enough humor and pathos to undercut high-minded religiosity and make these works contemporary icons without sectarian associations.
Greenfield’s beautiful paintings weave cultural subtexts, futuristic fantasies and art-historical references together to create a new narrative on racial injustice, in which the universal love symbolized by the perfectly contained Madonna and Child triumphs over the violence and ill-will windowing in the background. These paintings are also informed by Greenfield’s nearly half-century practice of Eastern meditation, symbolized by the circular discs embedded with glyphs. Like meditation, these paintings open space on paradox, on wonder, on a known unknown that time and again allow for a kind of existential release and return into a state of inner peace.
Few artists today have the patience to make such labor-intensive paintings or to do the scholarly research which gives Greenfield’s content a mnemonic significance as memory aids. These deeply contemplative paintings allow us to meditate on where we have been, where we are now, and where we could move forward.
Lita Barrie is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Barrie’s writing has appeared in a wide range of magazines and newspapers in New Zealand and Los Angeles, including Hyperallergic, HuffPost, art ltd, Artweek, and Art New Zealand. An archive of her writing is held at the New Zealand National Library. To read more of her work, visit www.litabarrie.com
Featured image: Mark Steven Greenfield’s Collateral (2020)
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