Laylah Ali’s work hasn’t changed much over 15 years, but then it really hasn’t had to: Hers is the kind of signature approach that remains inventive no matter what. Wielding exquisite command of gouaches, watercolors and acrylics, she depicts the fraught relationship between individuals and society as syncopated, friezelike arrangements of characters unmarked by determinants of race, gender or era.
Built out of simple shapes detailed with tribalistic markers, they’re left unmoored in empty space, inhabiting a world that’s literally flat—a universe bound, stylistically, by children’s-book illustration, tomb painting and outsider art. Ali’s characters are both alien and immediately recognizable as us, especially in the way their interactions demonstrate who’s in charge and who’s not.
As the title of Ali’s latest offering indicates, people and hierarchies alike require a head to function, and the loss of one, metaphorically or otherwise, spells trouble. Previously, she’s conjured scenes of systemic breakdown, but here the focus is on a kind of existential terror, represented by decapitated figures running around like chickens with…well, you know. Their separated noggins don’t roll too far, however; in many instances, they wind up impaled in the center of the torso, transformed into parasitic worms with wriggling tails and alarmed expressions—the fear in the pit of your stomach made flesh.
One scene in particular shows these grubs on their own, prostrate in a desertlike purgatory defined as a strip of sand against an unrelenting sky. It’s a necessary reminder that despite our self-aggrandizement as a species, we’re all animals whose instincts are bound to turn against us.—Howard Halle