Mark Steven Greenfield, “Hey, Hey It’s Your Birthday”



September 13 - October 11, 2015, at Offramp Gallery, Pasadena

by Elenore Welles



The ethnically diverse ethos of Southern California is reflected in the artistic instincts of both Mark Steven Greenfield and Thinh Nguyen. Although both artists are receptive to current situations, their individual aesthetics provide valuable insights into their respective cultures.




Mark Steven Greenfield, “Hey, Hey It’s Your Birthday,” 2014, ink on Duralar, acrylic, 40 x 48”.



Greenfield’s previous works have primarily dealt with the African American experience. His recent “The Egungun Squad" series is based on a tradition brought to the new world through the African slave trade. As an artist in residence on an island off the coast of Salvador, Brazil, he was exposed to the practice of Egungun, which stems from the belief that the spirits of ancestors hang around the earth, helping human beings to fulfill unsatisfied desires. As intermediaries, they guide living individuals through dreams. However, busy spirits that they are, they are also in charge of overseeing the progress of society. Their connection between the living and the dead is brought about through ritual dances. Since Egungun literally means "powers concealed," dancers represent the spirits with flamboyant disguises. Greenfield’s descriptive ink and acrylic paintings capture the lavishness of their costumes, often created with multiple layers of colorful and expensive textiles.

Egungung symbolism is updated in works such as “Hey, Hey It’s Your Birthday." Concealed within a straw costume, the spirit holds a birthday cake and a machete. The icing on the cake is melting, a symbol of the passage of time. The machete clears a path to the end of life. The spirit figure is placed within a field of cotton, a metaphorical allusion to the soft comfort and hidden thorns (the plant’s dried bristles) of earthly existence.

Though in charge of healing and advice, spirits are in possession of negative energies as well. As such, their benevolence can turn ominous, since they also mete out punishment. In “The Egun That Saved Florida,” for instance, an elaborately decorated, deep red textile disguises the spirit. The powers of spirits are traditionally concealed, but this one openly carries a gun. The weapon is a grim reference to coercive power that Greenfield makes topical. Further reference to contemporary public issues appears in "I Sing the Body Techneric.” Here, the spirit is weighted down with electronic devices, ostensibly to make life easier, but the cautionary message is that our reliance on them is also be a burden.

Thinh Nguyen, who grew up in a rural village in Vietnam, draws on his ethnic background from a unique perspective. As a child, discouraged in his passion for art and lacking art supplies, he used sticks and branches to draw on the ground. Consequently, as an adult in America he developed a unique style of painting, often utilizing objects such sticks, bottles and yarn in place of brushes.  


Currently residing in L.A., with its fertile history of assemblage, Nyguyen breathes new life into the re-use of found objects. “Composite-Trinity" is comprised of three chairs, the seats and backs of which are woven with colorful strips of unfinished, abandoned paintings by friends and students. Three framed wall objects and hand sewn hexagonal floor mats are also woven with painting remnants. His use of materials serves his subject matter, but his method of construction is reminiscent of Vietnamese weaving traditions. Nguyen’s resultant hybrids are intended not only to obscure individual identities, but their personal and collective memories as well. As he explains, “The destruction of the paintings is a form of creation in reverse.” Placed side by side, the chairs take on totemic significance.




Thinh Nguyen, “Composite-Trinity,” 2015, mixed media installation.