Laylah Ali’s friends, Romans and foreigners

laylah ali
Untitled, ink on paper

The ink drawings of Laylah Ali now showing at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ Morris Gallery evoke gladiators, monkeys, Elizabethans and your average high school kid thinking far too much about how he looks.

It’s just a short step from Madame Pompadour’s towering power hairdos to the foliage atop Ali’s humanoids, edgy creatures who at once seem to be battle scarred, or mutant, or just plain mean. This is not to say they lack humor and wit, like the skinny-legged superhero wearing his super-hero jockeys atop a skirted tunic. He’s caped and his athletic socks have stripes at the top. But he’s more like a Star Trek Ferengi than a Clark Kent or Michael Jordan. Near him, a maimed partner has an egg-shaped baby in a sling on her (his?) back and a tongue sticking out. These are not nurturing relationships.

laylah ali

While it’s not clear if the pictured individuals are friends or enemies, humans or Wookies, they are edgy folks, dressed for battle–whether that battle is social or out and out war. I’ve always felt that the way that kids dress for high school has a little of that tone. They are at war not only with their parents but with their fears of what others think of them. The outfits are carapace’s to protect their feelings and mislead about their identities.

laylah ali

I especially liked the topiary hair of one armless couple whose bundled topknots are anchored by antler/tree-branch/scissorhands, one blade of which impales a baby/pod creature, and one of which dangles a child from a leash around her neck. I also like that the more elaborate of the two, who appears female, is a bearded leady and the guy-like counterpart is smoothfaced and less ornate.

Laylah Ali
Laylah Ali, “Untitled,” 1999, Gouache on paper, 8 1/4 x 13 3/4 inches, Courtesy Miller Block Gallery, Boston Only “fair use,” for personal and/or educational purposes, of artwork is permitted: Art21 Copyright Notice

The work feels lyrical and spontaneous, but with great elaboration and imagination. While I enjoyed the drawings enormously, I left wanting more. The work shown here, from Ali’s Typology Series, feel like a no-holds-barred thought process, a path to her more finished gouaches, which are extremely controlled and planned (see image above). Ali’s gouaches, with their more direct racial and social content, are more satisfying and hard-nosed. I like that close-to-the-bone edginess.

These pieces, are closer to the humans-as-creatures cartoons of younger artists like Marcel Dzama and Ben Woodward. If the drawings are meant as finished works, the pieces seem to concede that tribalism is in the blood, that the rules of engagement are forever inscrutable, and what’s the use in raging against the machine of culture?


laylah ali, morris gallery, pafa



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