Laylah Ali, Untitled (Greenheads), 1998
Text by Lisa Fischman, Ruth Gordon Shapiro '37 Director
Significant within her oeuvre, Laylah Ali’s Untitled demonstrates her critically acclaimed “greenheads” series — spare gouache paintings that render brightly colored characters with big round heads against distinctive sky-blue planes. In composition and style (here, employing segmented frames), her images reference comics and employ the graphic punch and egalitarian accessibility associated with that medium to new effect. Deceptively simple, the work displays the artist’s technical virtuosity and erudition, a combination of conceptual precision and an intuitive grasp of the communicative power of her medium. Ali’s careful choices — stripping figure and ground to the barest essentials, juxtaposing cheerful color and dark subject matter, and selecting a small format to further condense the work’s charge — are strategic; they render the images highly evocative, open to multiple interpretations and resistant to complete definition.
Ali sets her characters, in groups or alone, into uncertain circumstances to suggest stories with shadowy outcomes. Signs and symbols (ie. ancient Egyptian dress and hair styles; priestly raiment) reappear throughout the work, functioning like components of an artistic alphabet or as keys to a language that is obscured yet familiar. Pervasive themes— violence and passivity, affiliation and alienation, parity and inequality— link Ali’s images to historical and contemporary circumstances, to political, social, and cultural conditions.
With a distinctive clarity of purpose, her work insists on viewer participation, and it is through this vital act of looking and complicity in the construction of meaning that Ali’s oeuvre in turn enriches the contemporary art dialogue.