Today’s post comes from Olivia Zisman, class of 2016 and Art Center Student Docent.

Laylah Ali (American, b. 1968)Untitled, 2001From Exit Art Portfolio 2001, TWO O ONESoftground, hardground, aquatint, drypoint, and roulette on Rives BFK paper, published by Exit Art, New York, edition of 50Gift of Peter Frey, class of 1982, 2008.8.1.2

Laylah Ali (American, b. 1968)
Untitled, 2001
From Exit Art Portfolio 2001, TWO O ONE
Softground, hardground, aquatint, drypoint, and roulette on Rives BFK paper, published by Exit Art, New York, edition of 50
Gift of Peter Frey, class of 1982, 2008.8.1.2

Laylah Ali’s print, Untitled, in the Recent Acquisitions: Works on Paper exhibition, brings three-dimensional motion to a two-dimensional space. The image itself suggests flatness, showing round creatures suspended in space right up against the picture plane. The creatures—although somewhat simple-looking—are meticulously rendered and slightly grotesque. They have red cuts on their sides and some wear band-aids; all wear expressions of hurt and sadness. The shape and textured “skin” of these characters brings to mind the image of dodgeballs. In fact, the dodgeball theme is one recurrent in Ali’s work, and the artist herself has talked about how her anxiety and negative feelings toward this game have come to play a role in her paintings. This resemblance makes the creatures seem as if they could bounce off the page into the viewer’s world and also seems to contradict the flat, compressed nature of the work. However, I don’t believe this contradiction detracts anything from the piece, as I see Ali’s work as embodying a series of contradictions. Her work is simultaneously still and in motion, and bright and cartoonish while also being somber and deeply emotional.

The sky-blue background of the print appears pleasant and calming, and from a distance the bouncing figures at first seem light and joyful—purely cartoonish creations meant to transport the viewer to a different world. However, in interviews with the artist, Ali makes it clear that her creations are anything but an escapist fantasy. Although she is inspired in part by television cartoons, Ali’s work is very much autobiographical. As the only black child in an all white school, Ali was constantly bullied. As a result, her paintings and prints contain symbols of the psychological trauma she felt as a child.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Ali’s work is her collaboration with dancer and choreographer Dean Moss on Figures on a Field, which turns her paintings into a performance piece. In creating dances based on the motions depicted in her work, Moss and Ali are able to bridge the gap between two- and three-dimensional space. In working with dancers, Ali transforms a work like the one in the Art Center into a narrative. Through the movement of the dancers, her stories emerge from the page with real faces and relatable, tangible emotions. The performance piece reinforces the notion that the two-dimensional scenes Ali creates are not mythical, but instead are pulled from her own very real life. Watching the performance piece brings an added dimension to the print in the Art Center’s collection.

Here is a clip of Laylah Ali and Dean Moss discussing their collaboration: