Critics’ Picks

Untitled, 2004.

Untitled, 2004.

New York

Laylah Ali

303 Gallery
555 W 21st Street
January 15–February 19, 2005

The creatures in Laylah Ali's most recent paintings seem to be watching, waiting, for someone—or something—to creep in from the side of the frame. None look straight out. Instead, they glance steadily sideways, with beady eyes, proper posture, and hidden limbs. They are all members of Ali's signature and strange humanoid species, but in this exhibition the artist zeroes in on the individuals who have populated the multi-figure scenes of years past. She gives us blown-up faces, with hole-punched nostrils and tense, toothy smiles, but this move toward portraiture is countered by a simultaneous move toward abstraction. The loosely checked pattern of a pink-faced androgyne's shirt is pitted against a soaring headpiece that takes over the upper half of the canvas with blue and white stripes. Ali's customary array of three or four regimentally aligned figures has been replaced by denser patterned fields that seem to push the sky blue backgrounds out of the frame. There are exceptions to this format in the new work, but they too explore heightened formal elements. Ali never loses the anxiety that (paradoxically) makes her work so appealing. The works in this exhibition are ominously playful and playfully ominous, but what makes them more engaging than ever is that, by moving in on the faces, Ali has unloosed the inherent tension in her work into thoughtful investigations of color and pattern.