I first came across Laylah Ali’s paintings in graduate school and immediately felt enamored. Her works were refreshing and filled me with validation. Since childhood, I was attracted to comics and cartoons and for many years, was convinced that I would become an animator. Years of schooling resulted in my desire to follow the path of being a fine artist; making work for myself as opposed to clients. I didn’t, however know what that “looked” like: What kind of work was acceptable? How could I create work that was engaging, unique and personal? What could I create that would make others take me seriously? How could I be vulnerable as a woman, as an artist, as a black person, yet still participate in a patriarchally-dominated institution? How could I paint my truth without being pedantic? There were so many questions at that time but not enough answers and to this day, I still don’t necessarily have the answers. What I did discover after my encounter with Laylah Ali’s paintings was that I could actually do all of those things by just being myself.
Laylah Ali’s Greenheads series showed me that there was no “correct” way to go about being a black, queer, female artist or simply an artist but that just being me was enough. Her work rendered me speechless. She had a booming voice emanating through the graphic language of cartoons and comics. Her works communicated various current events and the plight of our society through the simplest and oldest form of art-making. Laylah gave me the validation and confidence I needed to push forward and create. In some images, the Greenheads are both aggressive and physically violent or bear witness to the aftermath of destruction. They are small, detailed paintings with a cartoonish aesthetic that are created with extreme delicateness. The colors of her paintings are rich and alluring and allude to childhood nostalgia. There is also something quite horrific and grotesque after being engrossed in the work for a long period of time. Their intimate scale requires an intense engagement and a yearning for scrutiny that over time develops into prostration. Minute details: missing limbs, contorted bodies, exposed flesh, slowly reveal themselves and humanize these otherworldly figures. I feel encapsulated by their world and long to simultaneously help them and turn away.
There is a distinct difference between viewing Laylah Ali’s work in person versus a reproduction, which I discovered recently at the opening of her new exhibit at Paul Kasmin Gallery. These new paintings, her first solo exhibition since 2005, called The Acephalous Series are much quieter. The brushstrokes and layered effect of the gouache create a very different experience than viewing the works in a publication. There is a tension between the physical grotesqueness of the characters and their melancholy, subdued aura as they appear to be on an endless journey. These new characters introduced in this series retain the figurative fragmentation of The Greenheads but are more contemplative. The nautical world she depicts highlights water’s function as an agent of trauma, spirituality, and peace.
The language of Laylah Ali’s work has taught me a lot about my own ways of looking, body awareness, color, materiality and narrative that I’ve brought into my studio practice. In an interview with “The Believer”, she perfectly encapsulates my own goal for how I aim for my work to function. She states, “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.” It is evident in this new series that Laylah Ali has accomplished her goal by allowing the viewer to become solely immersed in the work without the distraction of her presence; revealing the tranquility of societal dysfunction.