Exhibition Visit, The Acephalous Series, February 6 – March 16, 2019
Goucher College, Baltimore, MD.
Like many artists of my generation, I was coming of age during the rise of Laylah Ali in the art world. Her Art 21, her inclusion in the Whitney and Venice Biennials, and gallery shows paralleled many art school careers. I’ve always felt that Ali’s work was stoic and existed pleasantly and preferably outside of art world glamour, despite all of her success. She’s created her own sparsely populated visual world with swaths of negative space and the perfect color combinations to activate violent, loving, and empathetic scenes. On February 6, Ali’s exhibition The Acephalous Series opened at Goucher College in Baltimore. I’m so pleased to see her work here and grateful to have had the opportunity to spend some time with Ali and learn more about her work. Ali will be giving an artist talk at Goucher College on Thursday, March 14, reserve tickets here.
Interview between Laylah Ali and Amy Boone-McCreesh
Your cast of characters has changed over the course of your career, how do you think about their relationships and identity?
Unlike in my Greenheads series, the figures in the Acephalous series are gender conscious, as well as being potentially sexual or sexualized. Genitalia make an appearance. There is also actual racial difference amongst the characters. There is hair. Some do not have heads, thus the term “acephalous,” but they are still functioning, often as surrogates.
There continues to be a tension between the individual and the group. They are in groups that I might consider uneasy alliances.
I remain interested in what is obvious about bodies as well as what is covered up, the way that bodies can be manipulated and changed. I am interested in how much can happen to a body, how much it can absorb, and what survival actually means.
In your work I think a lot about the nuances of power, do you use your own life experiences as inspiration or more of the broader world around you?
My own life and history are threaded throughout my work, though in my paintings I am usually not interested in making that an obvious connection. My life experiences provide quiet, powerful fuel, though my work has always drawn on things that are actually happening in the world—like reported news, political events, social movements. But the paintings remain deliberately, perhaps stubbornly, allegorical. My drawings are sometimes more raw and explicitly connected to my own self.
The color choices in your work offer peace in sometimes disturbing imagery, can you talk about your relationship with color? I notice palette shifts from one body of work to another……
I suspect my relationship with my palette is about to take another shift. In the beginning of my career, I had a more straightforward relationship with how I used color, which was “come hither, come hither” and then using that initial attraction as a context for harder, more confounding engagement.
The Acephalous series is a softer palette than my Greenheads series, the latter which was more saturated. So the softer palette for the Acephalous makes the series less graphic. Less reaching out toward the viewer with graphic punch and more inward perhaps. The viewer has to reach visually into the painting more.
Your use of negative space is something you do so well and I know many admire. I’m really interested in the sense of scale you are able to create despite a lack of context. Can you talk about composition and how you think about space in this work?
I am teaching negative space right now to my beginning drawing students so appreciate this question because it is so critical. I try to create a tension between the stasis of my figures and the dynamic negative space around them. The figures become activated by the space between them. For many years, I became interested in making my figures as still as possible. I think that move was a reaction to early critical response focusing on the “violence” in my work. So I drained the paintings of active movement. In such a paring down, the negative space I created was crucial to activating the composition. It is a way, I suppose, of connecting them through shared energized space, though they can seem so alone.
While the subjects of your work aren’t exactly human, they seem to stand in for our afflictions. Beyond violence and bodies are there signifiers of humanity that you try to allude to?
The poet Lillian Yvone Bertram used a term about my figures that I really liked. Lillian called them “askance/askew humans.” Their physical forms are mostly referencing human bodies but they are also flat and deliberately drained of their three dimensionality. What they do and what their stories are have everything to do with people. But, for the most part, I deliberately don’t operate in the world of realism or of representing realistic human bodies. I want my figures to have some possibility of freedom and independence from what traps and binds us in real human bodies.
In your work, I sometimes I sense the evolution of one figure and sometimes the depiction of self. How much of yourself do you connect to those in your work?
The figures and me are bound in ways that I probably can’t fully explain myself. My own experiences have offered me a gateway to my understanding of bodies and how racialized, non-conformist bodies live in a context that often devalues, erases, fetishizes or actively harms them. So the themes in my work are very much connected to what I myself have experienced in my own life. Though my work is also interested in looking forward, anticipating where all of this is leading. A hybrid of dystopia and utopia.
What do you having coming up that you would like to promote? Where can people see your work?
I am working on some prints right now with Red Ridge Editions at the University of Arkansas. Four figures in silkscreen. I am not sure where they will be shown yet, but I have been working more with printmaking lately so am very interested to see what happens.