– Autumn/Winter 2002
Almost Comic: The Art of Laylah Ali
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Laylah Ali, Illustration, artist's book, Laylah Ali for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.
Writing about politically engaged art is a difficult task, yet there are a number of benefits that I imprudently believe come from doing it persuasively. One of these is the opportunity to challenge the idea that it is in any way legitimate to label people by a single attribute. By this I mean the idea that, in certain encounters, it can mean anything useful to talk about 'rich people', 'fat people', 'white people', 'black people'.
Of course, in a mere name or classification lies a version of the same everything-and-nothing quality that the grandest modern representational malfeasances, such as the ones we call gender and race, require to function. Mindful of the calcified rituals these ideas call up, one finds especially welcome the abstruse paintings and drawings in gouache by Laylah Ali titled Greenheads - in reference to the androgyne, brown-skinned, luridly costumed, stick-thin, big-round-green-domed humanoids that have, since 1996, run amok in her work. In this essay I will make a few observations about what I think is the work's central achievement: its original synthesis of, and temperate behavior toward, those aesthetic and cultural problems that discipline any serious reconsideration of what we think of as the limits of representation and representability.
What if it were possible to redress, single-handedly and from our own points of view, the politicisation of perception, social cataloging, and their effects on our mobility? What kind of art is dictated by such a need? These questions pertain to much of the important art of our time, and they are essential to the larger project in which the Greenheads have been conscripted. Importantly, besides the discourse-altering force of the ubiquitous Greenheads, Ali's work