my make believe collection :: 21 :: laylah ali

Contributor post by Lisa Solomon

laylah ali, untitled, 1999, gouache on paper
it seems like almost every semester i make my students watch the art 21 segment on laylah ali. [it's in the power episode. i'd link to it directly, but it's currently linking to the wrong segment. she's the 2nd artist and you should really watch the first segment on cai guo-qiang anyway]. i think i've watched it at least 7 times ? and i'm not tired of it. 

her newspaper filing system
in it she divulges how she has a filing system for inspiration photos from the newspaper. she has a whole folder on "hands". above she talks about how the tobacco guys swearing to congress are of interest for the way that they hold their thumbs - one pointing out - one pointing in.

she also shares her highly idiosyncratic studio practice: there is one color one brush, she makes tiny test trips of colors with formulas on the back so she can create them to test out what color to place where. how she uses gouache which is finicky but gives her the end result she wants. and the fact that in essence some of her work is not fun - it's tense - it's almost tortuous... i love this part because it debunks the myth that art making is solely a "fun" and "creative" endeavor.

laylah ali, untitled, gouache on paper from the greenheads series
every time i watch it, i'm struck by how i'm not at all bored of looking at her work either. the obvious rhythm and repetition is eye catching. 

laylah ali, untitled for 75 projects, 2001, digital rendering
she talks about how she grew up watching cartoons. she talks about how she tries to pare things down. she is often trying to discover what her characters do and don't need to be read as a character. she shies away from the term creatures as that's too monsterous and potentially scary.

but there are often scary - even horrific, and sometimes undeterminable things going on in her work.

laylah ali, untitled 2003, gouache on paper
let's be frank. there is violence. violence about to happen or already happened, or happening [she talks about how her interest has shifted from during to before and after].

there is racism. at one point in talking about how perhaps it's just that black people's skin is so dark - it's the darkness that causes our eyeballs to stare... she asks "could racism be just attributed to bizarre visual phenomenon? there's a question" 

laylah ali, untitled, 2003, gouache on paper

she also talks about control. and this is the part that really meshes with my own practice. she talks about wanting to control these works. in essence it's a mean to control something that is highly uncontrolable. things that are frightening, scary, often beyond our personal control, intensely emotional and often forever placed in our memory. she also says that the pieces that end up really working for her are the ones that somehow defy her. that despite her tight orchestration still manage to do something she didn't expect.

that rings so true to me.

what strikes me is that she has managed to make these safe and potent. scary and almost cute. simultaneously. that they are both entirely fictional and inherently personal with tinges of autobiography. this continual tension of duality just draws me in.

i, of course, also have to mention my love of her color choices. and negative space. oh negative space - your power and hold over me are supreme.

laylah ali, untitled, 2004, colored pencil on paper

her quirkier, quicker, more spontaneous drawings also intrigue me. she says they are more fun for her to make. i think they also continue in the above mentioned duality. tight vs. loose.

laylah ali, untitled, 2002, ink, colored pencil on paper
so, which do i want in my collection? it's hard to choose. iconic greenhead series ? a looser drawing ? i think in the end i'd either choose the above odd hat w/ lets and sticks and worm baby drawing. i think partially because those superhero striped underwear are JUST SO good. so is the line quality [i've been teaching contour in a beginning drawing class these days. line is king]. or below. 

laylah ali, untitled, 2003, gouache on paper and in MOMA's collection
because the expanse of blue gets me every time. that pretty sky blue. the epitome of calm. slightly off in that way that you know something really bad could happen. i love the tube socks on that foot. i love that there is a white flag of surrender. i'm not sure what these mounds are. conquests? piles of characters? some other? this one has a lot of mystery to it. it is both totally still and makes me feel like something is about to jump out at me.

keep track of my collection as it grows on pinterest. till next time - happy fall !!

Jan Halvarson


Sarah Watson said...

Aaaah, I love when people share their go-to inspiration. Thanks so much for this.

lisa s said...

glad you liked it sarah !

Rikkianne said...

Wow! Fantastic post. I'm going to watch the segment this evening. Thank you for sharing this. I love to read your articles.