New York

Laylah Ali

LAYLAH ALI'S LATEST “Greenhead” paintings, on view recently in the young Boston-based artist's first solo show in New York, look spare and cool with their blue backgrounds and cartoony figures in gouache on paper. The almost identical Greenheads, each with bulging white eyes, a thin brown body, and an oversize, round, dark-green head, make mechanical gestures: They wave their thin arms, run in a row, or offer objects to one another. Like superheroes, they wear simple uniforms, yet their actions are anything but heroic or simple. Throughout the small-scale scenarios appear tiny, pointed details—disembodied heads, missing limbs, leather belts, executioners' masks, wailing children—that suggest ominous narratives of historical and familial violence, driving the work beyond comic-book innocence into a realm of ritual humiliation, betrayal, complicity, and shame.

In one painting (all works Untitled, 2000), a Greenhead forces another—whose forearms and right leg are missing—to observe three figures hanging from nooses. Tiny round Band-Aids dot their bare chests. One hanging figure holds an amputated leg, complete with sneakered foot, in his clawlike hand; another holds a belt; the third an arm—all of which seem to belong to the observer of the group lynching. This figure wears an expression that is at once quizzical and horrified. Is the act of witness some kind of history lesson, perhaps a terrible punishment? Does our own witness to the painting implicate us somehow? In another work, four Greenheads in white uniforms and tall, conical white hats stand in a row. The outfits suggest both the pomp and ceremony of Catholic ritual and the banal evil of the Ku Klux Klan. The figures on the right hold out a disembodied head to the figures on the left; the head seems about to speak. Is this an offering of some kind to colonial newcomers or evidence of an atrocity? Like the grimacing head, the paintings won't say.

Ali's work is more enigmatic and subtle than that of other African American artists who use a vocabulary of historical stereotypes—Kara Walker's silhouettes, say, or Michael Ray Charles's “mammies,” or even Ellen Gallagher's scribblings of “black” images in the spaces of her Minimalist compositions. It is precisely their enigmatic subtlety that makes Ali's paintings shocking and effective. The small, delicately painted Greenheads are not easily identifiible as white or black, male or female, even oppressor or victim, yet the scenarios point to a particular American history of oppression and its residue, which the viewer must draw on to complete the narrative circuit. Still, there is a deeply personal feel to the work, which complicates the broadly historical narrative. In several paintings, Greenhead “children” are stuck inside the stretched-out uniforms of the “parents” who hold them, as if shackled to the same fate: Parents and children are crying and gesticulating, trying to communicate something urgent but obscure.

The exhibition included two particularly small paintings of single figures. Like soliloquies in action-filled dramas, these works had the effect of highlighting the isolation and emotional turbulence of particular characters. A Greenhead stands in red-striped underpants, wearing a hood (in “Caucasian” flesh tones) that covers his head and face except for his eyes and oversize nostrils. Little hairs grow out of the hood, as if it were permanently affixed to his head. In one hand, the figure holds a looped belt. Is he a hangman or the condemned? Which are “we”?

Nico Israel