A shared “free market gone wild” attitude
An obsession with crime on television
Native peoples that have been entirely eliminated from national significance
Laylah Ali was born in 1968. It was a year marked by cataclysmic change: movements, invasions, offensives, assassinations, and a student demonstration-turned-massacre in Mexico punctuated by black-gloved fists raised in the air at the Summer Olympics gathered like storm clouds over the optimism of the previous year. Perhaps I’m forcing connections—maybe it’s just coincidence that Ali grew up to create an exacting visual art out of social and political commentary using similar gestures, but it’d be folly to chalk up the reflective precision of her paintings to her schooling alone.
Ali earned an M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis in 1994, and studied at the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Her fascination with weakling superheroes, regimentation, alliance and betrayals, ambiguously tense environments, and, curiously, dodgeball, led to the Greenheads, a series of more than sixty paintings Ali began exhibiting in 1998. These figures, rendered in meticulous detail, are expressive, brown-limbed, razor-thin androgynes, all related by their eponymous green heads yet often segregated by colorful uniforms, accessorized by belts, masks, or rank-denoting headdresses. One such figure, in headdress and white tunic, might be a boss scolding three alternately incredulous, defiant, and apologetic-looking underlings for a botched job, or a survivor pointing out captured war criminals accused of heinous acts.
Ali’s Greenheads has sparked a good deal of debate, from discussions of race, class, and political content in visual art to conversations about the richness (or legitimacy) of genre-crossing between fine art and illustration. Always, though, people ask: how are we supposed to know what these paintings are really about? Though reminiscent of tribunal scenes, war games, comic books, and the absurdist stagings of Adrienne Kennedy and Samuel Beckett, her paintings are free of the slogans, captions, and loaded titles we might expect from such politically charged work. Viewers and curators alike are left to mine their own perspectives and imaginations for answers, and, fortunately, they enjoy ample opportunity to do so. Ali has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, (which commissioned her to produce a wordless graphic novelette—which, like much of her work, is untitled—in 2002); ICA, Boston; MCA, Chicago; Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis; and MASS MoCA, among others, as well as showing her works at such exhibitions as the Venice Biennale (2003) and the Whitney Biennial (2004). She is also a featured artist in the PBS series Art: 21—Art in the Twenty-First Century, broadcast beginning fall 2005.
Now that the Greenheads has firmly established her vocabulary as an artist and thinker, Ali has taken her art not just to the next stage, but into the third dimension. For the Kitchen performance space in New York, she collaborated with choreographer Dean Moss on Figures on a Field, which reinterprets, with dancers and audience, the scenarios of her earlier paintings, and the gallery experience. She’s currently working with portraits, manipulating this canonical form by creating intricately marked paintings of imaginary personas instead of actual people, to convey narrative.
Ali is on sabbatical from Williams College, where she teaches, so I had to rely on various inexpensive methods to reach her in her studio in Melbourne, Australia. She was preparing for a solo show at Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, as well as a group show, The Body. The Ruin, at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art.
THE BELIEVER: A friend said to me yesterday that the artist always works with the body, not just the body, but his or her own body. That that’s what being an artist is. And yet, in the earlier series, your particular rage, coming out of your specific person, body, psyche, has such a representative, almost generic, look and feel, in terms of the violence we witness or enact as individuals, as well as daily, state-sponsored, public violence.
LAYLAH ALI: I’m not sure that my personal rage or anger needs to resonate in the work. It does fuel my need to make the work, to engage, to destroy, rebuild, keep at it. I think what I’m trying to do is to see what happens when something so seemingly dead-ended as rage becomes part of a process, a meticulous process where it becomes fused with other strains such as depressive impulses and actual ideas and questions about the world we live in—to see what this stitched-together creation becomes. So the anger becomes an important part of the process but not necessarily the outcome. My body definitely undergoes the stress and tension of working on the paintings, but that tension is directed into the figures and their exchanges. I really wanted to resist any easy connection to the artist—people always want to go there, to the pathology of the artist, rather than examining themselves. I think I need to disappear a bit in order for the viewer to engage more fully.
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