Artist explores the chaos and humanity of wild men

If you missed the recent retrospective devoted to longtime Altadena artist Mark Steven Greenfield, you're not alone. The California African American Museum seems to operate with all the visibility of a government stealth operation.

Not to worry, though: Greenfield has just thrown a few of his newer artistic cards onto the table at the Offramp Gallery in Pasadena.

He's showing nine graphic pieces that break down into two groupings. Five of them ruminate on a theme of a secretive Brazilian sect with origins in West Africa; the others are abstract graphics of a set. They can be charming and sunny, inscrutable and/or unsettling or any combination thereof.

While at Los Angeles High, Greenfield participated in Tutor/Art, a seldom-chronicled program that put talented students under intensive tutelage by professional artists and teachers like Charles White and John Riddle. The class gestated Self-Help Graphics co-founder Leo Limon, art directors Glen and Stuart Iwasaki, muralists Richard Wyatt and James Borders, painters George Evans and Collie Lowe, illustrators Pearl Beach and Alan Takemoto among many others. Greenfield earned Bachelor and Master of Fine Arts degrees at Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Los Angeles, respectively.

A recent artist residency brought Greenfield into contact with the Egungun (pronounced Eh-goon-goon). They're shamanic wild men who purportedly have mystic powers. Greenfield was led in by the hand to observe one of their closed rituals on the Island of Itaparica, off the coast of Salvador in Bahia.

Egungun are said to channel ancestral spirits and Greenfield depicts them as heavily veiled and garbed figures of mystery. These are arresting images that draw the viewer in, though only so far. They stand in backgrounds of swirling, dancing, multidirectional, eccentric shapes. Greenfield depicts their corporeal beings but also provides evidence of things unseen.

His medium of choice for this grouping is acrylic ink on Duralar. The colors break down as generally cool and neutral on the Egungun and hot and cool on the abstracts. Their intensities are often close to those of Dr. Martin's Dyes — the most brilliant of watercolor pigments.

Opposite impulses and contrary currents are everywhere in his work, and they often function as visual counterpoint. The Egungun flail about in frenzied ceremonies and dispense their healing magic. But they can turn on people in an instant during the chaos; a touch from one of them can mark a person for death. "Hey Hey It's Ya Birthday" shows one holding a cake in one hand and a machete in the other. The figure in "I Sing the Body Techneric" is weighted down with appliances and devices, all of which make our lives easier. At least that's what we tell ourselves.

As he does with the atmosphere of the Egungun pieces, Greenfield depicts kinetically charged shapes and volumes in his other four images. Suns shine brightly, fluffy clouds roll by, flowers bloom in "Ode to Susan Mallory of Virginia" and "Wandering Spirit" — if you choose to view them that way. Are those neurons and protons ricocheting around the interior of some kind of botanical pinball machine in "Mabry"? Unlike the two-dimensional Egunguns, these have transparent shapes that overlap and swirl around each other. The depth of field in the cosmic "Three Sisters" brings to mind the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland but with the lights turned on. Just how do they avoid high-speed collisions?

Consistent with Greenfield's interest in opposition and what tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley called "split feelin's," you can take Greenfield's work at face value, enjoying the colors and textures of the curious people and the pretty colors. Or, you can look deeper and find our own inner wild man and get lost in the layers of energy made visible.

What: "Mark Steven Greenfield: The Egun Squad"

Where: Offramp Gallery, 1702 Lincoln Ave, Pasadena.

When: Through Oct. 11. Closed Mondays through Thursdays.

Contact: (626) 298-6931, offrampgallery.com

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

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