New York

Laylah Ali

There are still some “greenheads” in Laylah Ali’s new gouaches. But the artist’s signature creatures—with their spindly limbs, androgynous bodies, orbicular green heads, and brutal group antics—have mostly given way to a new race whose violently pink skins and hieratic placement on the paper seem to speak less about the ghastly comedy of societal cruelty and more about the eerie isolation of individuals.

Centered on smallish, vertically oriented sheets and pressed against opaque skies, Ali’s people—if that’s the word for them—appear volitionless. Crisp geometry and a pervasive, perhaps telltale palette of flat reds, whites, and blues lock the characters into their clothes, as if their bodies were mere filler for elaborate headdresses, wimples, and tunics. Poised between numbness and agitation, they stare into space like bit players whose roles are nonnegotiable though ambiguous. It does not look like a pleasant existence. But unlike Ali’s previous work, in which amputations, lynchings, and collective punishments are de rigueur, these lonely figures have escaped immediate pain. Their task is to witness, although what they might be seeing remains distanced, inadmissible.

As if to offset the focus on singular entities, Ali emphasizes pattern in these paintings. The controlled surfaces are busy. The show’s two “greenheads” are swaddled in stripes that nearly choke them—one wears a billed cap with bandagelike chinstrap and matching yoke collar, while the other peeks through a window in a sealed striped helmet. Several characters are burdened by headwraps whose upward-fanning bands of color loom like halos above their flushed faces—one wears a chain-mail hood from which shoot red, green, white, and blue rays; another sports a rounded blue turban like a Renaissance matron.

These costumes, along with the gouache’s chalkiness and the tension of the compositions, suggest religious frescoes or icons. At least, that is, until one comes across the figure wearing goggles or the one in a zipped parka, an orange fan lifting from his head like a swatch of kente cloth. Somewhere between hip-hop and Fra Angelico, South Park and Jan van Eyck, these emblematic accouterments identify Ali’s beings as belonging to some specific social category, but it’s impossible to tell which. They could be old men, biohazard workers, or little kids. They might be sunburned Caucasians, burn victims, or aliens. A different kind of indeterminacy—of morphology rather than social role—appears in a sequence of paintings showing mostly faceless, blob-shaped entities. One group portrait depicts four headless triangles standing at attention, another a globular, masked baby lying at the feet of a little girl whose skirt, knee socks, and sneakers don’t compensate for the way her body has been cut off at the waist, its top half vanished above a round, red wound.

One question about these ominously pretty drawings is how they might read to viewers unfamiliar with Ali’s previous output. Knowing the more explicitly violent material, it’s easy to track her interest in pushing the always-distorted markers of race in America (skin tone, hat choice, grievous injury) into new statements about terrible old problems. If we consider the mutant quality of “whiteness”—those scalded pink faces—or the fascination with clothing as social architecture, then the images retain their charge as political commentary, and the earlier massacres seem to hover, importantly, outside the frame. Perhaps these static, staring figures are looking back at the predicaments of their predecessors. But for those who haven’t seen the earlier pictures, is it possible that the fixed gazes would look neutral, the bodily and sartorial distortions strange rather than dangerous? Perhaps. On the other hand, this very invisibility or unknowing raises another question: What does it mean to look at a picture of someone whose personhood reduces to uncertain style and weird religiosity, whose impassive regard implies, somehow, unseen pictures of mayhem and ruthlessness?

Frances Richard