Laylah Ali made more than eighty paintings on paper involving strange green-headed beings of indeterminate age, gender, race, and meaning. Over forty of these exquisitely rendered gouache paintings are on view here, chronicling the series’ development. While the early paintings frequently focus on physically aggressive exchanges between groups of figures, these interactions are later replaced by individuals—alone or in small groups—who witness the prelude to, or aftermath of, a charged situation. As the series continues, more and more of the figures’ anatomy is pruned away, as if the artist is examining how much detail can be removed—such as arms, feet, skin color—while still communicating thought, emotion, and social status. “The enigmatic situations,” according to Ali, “represent the uncomfortable undertones of mistrust and conflict that often characterize social experience.” The show was guest curated by Deborah Rothschild for the Williams College Museum of Art and also traveled to the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Ali has had numerous solo exhibitions at institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 2004, her work was selected for the Whitney Biennial. She was featured in the award-winning PBS series Art21. She is currently a professor of art at Williams College.
The presentation of this exhibition at the Johnson Museum was organized by Andrea Inselmann, curator of modern and contemporary art & photography.