The Art of Race: Mark Greenfield's World, and Ours


Mark Greenfield, the prolific and polymathic artist whose works deeply and sometimes empathetically explored minstrelsy and other conscious perversions of black identity, had this response to the recent furor about Rachel Dolezal: he laughed.

"It's funny," he said of the public's fascination with Dolezal, the white woman who had been passing as black credibly enough to have been, among other things, president of the NAACP in Spokane. Some have called Dolezal's secretly adopted identity blackface, racial exaggeration that amounts to nothing less than modern-day minstrelsy. Greenfield acknowledges the deception but he says he can't get mad about it. The idea that a white person sincerely wants to be black, as Dolezal does, is less angering to him than it is aesthetically fascinating. It also upends the idea that white folks never actually want to be black; they can kink their hair or acquire a tan, or even be true soldiers in the fight for racial equality, known widely these days as "Black Lives Matter." But all that's quite a different thing than living black, which is presumably the last thing that anybody who isn't actually black would want to do. If this Dolezal episode proves anything, Greenfield says, it's that "we're in a hyper-racial, not post-racial, age. I'm not sure we'll ever come to grips with this stuff. If we all wake up tomorrow with blonde hair and blue eyes, we'll find other ways to discriminate."

Coming to grips is what Greenfield, 64, has been doing so effectively in his art for the last 40 years. A retrospective of his work, "Lookin' Back in Front of Me," has been up at the California African-American Museum since November and closes July 5. Walking through the exhibit is truly walking through a vision of the world that is by turns intimate, kinetic, audacious, exuberant, compassionate, and riotously colorful -- sometimes all things at once. Greenfield describes himself as optimistic. He practices meditation, and one of his favorite themes over the years has been Afrofuturism. "I loved science fiction -- still do -- but I never saw us in the future," he says. "I asked myself, what would that look like?" At the same time, his work is grounded in the here and now with clear political messages and commentary; he cheerfully calls his work "unapologetically didactic." But whatever the style of the pieces, they all reflect a mind feverishly mining itself -- fitting, given that another one of Greenfield's themes is the subconscious and how and why it gets suppressed. The phenomena of blackface minstrelsy is the result of such suppression. For one his minstrelsy-themed pieces, Greenfield smashed watermelons, an act he found not just psychologically freeing, but fun. "We don't want the exaggeration of black images to rule us," he explains. "We want to claim them. You want to always take control of what seems to be controlling you."

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Four years after retirement from the city -- Greenfield's most notable gig was director of the Watts Towers Arts Center for nine years -- he finds the scope of his messages expanding. One of the things that he learned from looking at the arc of his work over the years is that he wants to return to painting ("I was good," he says matter-of-factly, with no hint of false modesty) and to work that's less literal and more abstract. His current painting project is built around the image of a tornado and speaks to the various kinds of chaos wrought by the changing climate. Greenfield says he's striving to depict disorder created by a weather event, "a bigger, more global disaster" than, say, police brutality in Los Angeles. Yet the disasters share things in common, hubristic notions of human superiority, racial and otherwise, that lead to violence and destruction. (Wednesday's massacre of nine black parishioners by a young, disaffected white man at an historic A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina is a tragic case in point. I talked to Greenfield before that event, so it wasn't a topic of our conversation. But I immediately imagined his artistic response -- yet another one -- to the deepest questions about race raised by the shooting, questions that he's said are far from being answered, or even properly articulated, by most of us.)

Though retired, Greenfield is far from idle. He's mounting shows at two local galleries in the fall, and is travelling to China to mount another. He says he'll never retire from the cause inherent to being a black artist, which is to claim space and legitimacy in the art monde, what he calls "the last bastion of white control." The black presence in American culture is incalculable, but a corresponding presence in the rarefied world of art almost nil by comparison. It's a gap Greenfield is always looking to fill, a mission he inherited from the work of early mentors, including the noted painter William Pajaud, who died this week. "Art," says Greenfield, " is the part of the civil rights movement that never resolved."

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