Friday August 17, 2012

Her bubble-head stick figures may look like digital cartoons, but they made a world-wide reputation for Laylah Ali, who teaches art at Williams College. They have been shown at the Venice Biennale, Whitney Biennial, Museum of Modern Art and other similarly August venues.

Now, 40 of the more than 80 works she created in the series are reunited in exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art conceived by John Stomberg, former deputy director/chief curator. It opens Saturday and runs through Nov. 25.

What makes them significant, said guest curator Deborah Rothschild, is their disturbing "psycho-poltical" content and their masterful execution.

Each addresses violence, brutality, regimentation and other oppressions in very nuanced ways. The figures, stripped of identifying racial or gender features, menace each other. Yet what has happened or is about to happen, is left open-ended.

Painted in gouache, an opaque, water-based paint, in near microscopic detail, each image took months to complete.

In an email interview, Ali, 44, talked about how and why she became an artist, the Greenheads in retrospect, and where her career is heading now.

Q: Your drawings have been likened to hieroglyphics or cartoons without words, their intent left to viewer interpretation. Do you mean for them to be that opened-ended?

A: The Greenheads are a mix of being visually specific and narratively open. That was by design. I made each one with a few different, sometimes contradictory, stories in mind. But I knew the work also needed the input of the unknown viewer to complete the narrative -- it actually needs the viewer's language, history, baggage, all of that, to complete the interaction.

Q: You've said you never planned to be an artist; that your aim was teaching or law. But you studied art at Williams. What happened to change your mind?

A: I also was an English major in college, but I had a remarkably meaningful and expansive experience studying studio art at Willi ams with artists like Mike Glier and Peggy Diggs. They convinced me to keep at it, and I continued to study art because I was really engaged by the process of making it. So, I went to graduate school for painting and drawing because I loved doing it and wanted to see what I could make, but it was not my goal as a younger person to become an artist.

I made a conscious decision in my late 20's to concentrate on my work to the exclusion of many other things, and it was during that period, when I lived in Boston, that I probably entered a point of no return.

Q: You've said that studying art is a process of learning from and discarding influences of other artists; that it wasn't until five years after your junior year at college that you "made something that felt like it was my own -- really my own and successfully done." What was that piece and why did you conclude it was really your own?

A: I think I was probably referring to my graduate show in 1994. Those were oil paintings on canvas, somewhat larger than my Greenheads, that were titled "B Paintings." They were odd elongated figures wearing peaked hats with the letter B repeated in the hats. The hats were like caption bubbles, which the figures wore. I think that this work puzzled me in a way that my previous work had not. I had been in more control of the previous work in terms of meaning -- whereas with these, they started to have their own existence in a way that was a little mysterious to me, even though I had exerted a great deal of control making them.

Q: Artist/author Tisa Bryant said recently that your "fascination with weakling superheroes, regimentation, alliance and betrayals, ambiguously tense environments and, curiously, dodge ball, led to the Greenheads series." Is that a fair assessment? How does dodge ball enter into it? And where does the name Greenheads come from?

A: She puts it very well. Dodge ball, that brutal gym-class game that is still practiced in elementary schools across our nation, is a sanctioned survival-of-the-fittest game. I don't think there are any people my age, who weren't bullies of some sort, who enjoyed that game at school. Anyway, the balls are useful for the Greenheads, who are called Greenheads because they have green heads. 

In terms of the focus of the series, I have often described the work as an amalgam of race, power, gendering, ambition, human frailty, murky politics, and the other complex combinations that we so often treat as separate entities.

Q: You told me once that you were more interested in what precedes or follows a violent act than the violent act itself, "which is a predictable moment." Have you experienced violence yourself and what have you concluded after a decade of exploring the topic?

A: In terms of violence being predictable, I was primarily referring to violence as it appears in our culture or media.

So what are some of the ways that violence is portrayed in story form in our culture, both currently and historically? The gunning down, the knifing, the hanging or the lynching .... these definitive moments are preceded and followed by events that tell us a tremendous amount about who we are as a people. I am more interested in the dynamics of what leads to the violence or what emerges afterward.

As for my own personal experiences, I don't generally speak about them, though they certainly resonate, transformed, in the work. They are partially responsible for what fuels the work, but I have never been interested in those experiences defining the work.

I don't claim to come up with answers in these paintings. They are an exploration of some dark subject matter, but the outcome is not a research paper. I have often called my work psycho-political because it is where my loose ends, my questions, my frustration and social conscience meet the wider world.

Q: How would you distinguish the Greenheads from other work you've done? And what have you discovered about them through this show?

A: I worked on the Greenheads for almost 10 years so they are physically part of me in that working on them for so long actually shaped my body.

The work I did before the Greenheads was work that primarily served as warm-up for finding the figures that would eventually become the Greenheads. The work I did after has been focused on stretching other sorts of artistic ideas and muscles: my Typology series which are ink drawings and do not have any color; the performance collaboration with choreographer Dean Moss; my note drawings, which included writing again within the work, something I had not done since before the Greenheads.

I probably discovered more from the catalog for the show because it contains the majority of the work from the series so I could really see how things developed over time: what I pared down or stripped away. So, the actual exhibition, for me, is more like excerpts -- it contains some highlights and some favorite works.

Q: Can you say more about where your art stands now?

A: I am working on my latest group of paintings which would be recognizable in terms of some of the subject matter that comes up in the Greenheads, though some of the paintings I am working on now are bleaker and more desolate than the Greenheads, which is surprising to me.


What: "Laylah Ali: The Greenheads Series," a collection of paintings that focus on the socio-politics of violence.

Where: Williams College Museum of Art, Main Street, Williamstown.

When: Saturday through Nov. 25

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.
to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.
Closed Mondays.

Admission: Free.

Information: (413) 597-2429; www.wcma.org.

Special: Opening public reception,
Sept. 28, 5 to 7 p.m. Panel discussion, Nov. 15, 4:30 p.m.