March 2016
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MARCH 2016
In a documentary about Laylah Ali, her secret world was
revealed, a place where paint colors never cross-contaminate
brushes and newspaper clippings are organized by folders
stapled neatly to the wall. In my mind, the artist was forever
encapsulated in this environment. But that film was made
a decade ago, and people change. For artists, the magic
happens far outside the comfort zone, and Laylah Ali is often
leaning up against the uncomfortable. With ever-shifting
ensemble casts and scenarios, her stories evolve to reflect
our time and ask all the right questions.
Kristin Farr: Do you have a sense of why you are so precise
and methodical, or do you not consider yourself to be
either of those things?
Laylah Ali: I have trained myself to be precise and
methodical in the studio in certain ways. It did not come
naturally. I am also a big slob. The paintings are precise, and
my studio is quite messy, though I know where everything is,
pretty much.
Do you try to remain outside of your comfort zone in your
art practice?
I think the best place is for me to be is where comfort
meets discomfort, with the advantage going to discomfort.
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say where familiarity
meets discomfort. There are certain advantages in having
familiarity with materials and process but that can be a
hiding place as well.
Untitled (Acephalous series)
Gouache, acrylic, watercolor
and pencil on paper
58” x 14”
Untitled (Acephalous series)
Gouache, acrylic, watercolor
and pencil on paper
23” x 36.5”
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MARCH 2016
How were you encouraged as a young artist growing up
in Buffalo, NY? Did you spend time at the Albright-Knox
I had a great elementary school art teacher who had a
perfect art teacher name: Ms. St. Pierre. And my family
went with some regularity to the Albright-Knox Gallery
when I was a kid. I think that museum was important for me.
I particularly remember a Pollock painting and the Samaras
mirrored room installation that could be entered after
taking off one’s shoes.
When I was older, a teenager, I would stop at the Albright
Knox museum when walking a long distance in the Buffalo
winter. It would be a chance to warm up my freezing feet
and step in to look at the Jasper Johns number work they
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owned—it was close to the entrance door so it was easy to
warm up and look around that part of the museum and then
leave again eight minutes later to continue my trek.
More than any single work, I really loved that the museum
was free. It set up an entirely different relationship to it than
I would have had if we had to pay. We could not afford to pay
to go the museum on a regular basis. I felt like I had a right
to visit the museum, that there was no barrier in walking
through the door. There was no pressure to take everything
in at one time. It was a relationship that I had with that
museum for around 16 years. Over time, I gained a sense of
familiarity with it. Perhaps even ownership.
You’ve made paintings about dodgeball—such a cruel game.
Talk about why it’s symbolic of the issues you consider.
Ah, dodgeball. It is impossible to move to the symbolic
when dodgeball is steeped in physical reality for me. My
memories of dodgeball concern one Tom Wolf—that was
really his name—a self-appointed and rather dedicated
child racist, whose unofficial job was to enforce racial
segregation in our school. We seemed to play dodgeball
all the time in my white, working-class, public elementary
school. Tom Wolf was rather obsessed with degrading me
at every possible turn, and dodgeball was a legitimate,
school-sanctioned target practice on the only black
person in the entire school. Abraham Lincoln Elementary
School, by the way. Everything about this story is so
perfectly named and all true. So I dodged and dodged
because I did not want him to win, but it would have also
been easier to have been hit by the ball to just get out
of the game. I think I will let others derive the symbolism
from that story. Some things in my work are not symbolic,
they are just felt.
Is there a performative aspect to your work? Do you feel like
you’re directing a scene when you create a composition?
Definitely performative. The paintings can be like crude
stages or sets, the figures like characters in a play. I think of
them equally as characters and figures.
Tell me about the new Acephalous series.
These figures are gender conscious, as well as potentially
sexual or sexualized. There is actual racial difference
amongst the characters. There is hair. Some do not have
heads at all, but they are still functioning, thus the title,
Acephalous. They are on an endless, determined trek, a
multi-part journey. It has elements of a forced migration.
You’ve talked about a notion that racism could be attributed
to visual phenomena. Can you say more about that?
That’s one of those things I once said that was only partially
developed and needed more context. Obviously, racism
is complicated and deeply entrenched in ways that defy
optics as well as being influenced by the visual. But given
that everything today is being tagged with DNA influences,
I would not be surprised that we locate something in our
biology that has sway over the “us versus them” impulse.
They probably have already found it and given it a name.
Why is this impulse more pronounced in some people more
than others? Is it really all caused by context?
Does your work change as awareness of horrific injustice
increases? Have you referenced any specific stories
covered in the media in recent years?
We might be aware of singular injustices as they are
brought to our attention but we are still remarkably bad at
understanding how everything is linked, how the patterns
add up and convey larger meanings. I am probably more
concerned with patterns of behavior than I am with singular
events. Climate change has become an interest that is
starting to lap at the edges of my work.
Are newspaper photo clippings still a big part of your
I don’t source from newspaper articles so much anymore. That
practice fell away at some point when I started to see cycles
repeat themselves and found that I had essentially collected
the same kind of picture over and over again. I am finding that I
am still connected to and responding to topical events, but they
no longer are saved pictorially. My head is full.
Your “Greenheads” characters will be 20 years old soon.
Are you still working with them?
The Greenheads are retired. But I remain interested in what
is obvious about the human body as well as what is covered
up, the way the body can be manipulated and changed, and
how figures can form their own kind of communication. I am
interested in how much can happen to a body, how much it
can absorb, and what survival actually means.
Can you explain the role of research in your process?
It depends on the project. The last project that I did
extensive research for was my online project, John Brown
Song! that I did for the Dia Art Foundation. That required
some archival delving into original newspapers from 1859—
not surprisingly, a lot of gun violence in those pages—as well
as research on the “John Brown’s Body” song that became
one of the main topics of the project. I love doing that kind
of research but don’t often do it for my paintings, which tend
to traffic in some future, unknowable world that I am making
up with strands of the present and past. I do usually tend to
read history instead of fiction.
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opposite (top)
Untitled (Sky)
Gouache on custom arches
hot press panel
11” x 9.5”
opposite (bottom)
Untitled, detail (Acephalous series)
Gouache, acrylic, watercolor
and pencil on paper
81” x 14”
MARCH 2016
What drew you to that song, and can you say more about
the form of that project? I saw that Kara Walker participated.
I’ve been a John Brown fan for many years, and it was
sort of a hobby of mine to learn more about him and visit
historical sites related to his abolitionist actions. So when
Dia asked me to do a project online, I thought it might
be an opportunity to see if I could expand on my interest
in John Brown, to turn it into something unexpected but
that was relevant somehow to our own time—more as
a series of questions. So the invitation to sing the John
Brown song, which was once popular and widely known
in the United States, was a question about the song, and
a question about our relation to that time, to slavery, to
abolition, and our distancing. How would they handle it?
Did it have relevance to the people I asked? Abolition,
formerly a charged and dangerous political stance, is
such an antique word now. Could I find meaning in this
strange old song through asking people who might know
nothing about John Brown to sing it? I asked friends, family
members, coworkers and acquaintances. Kara does a great
uninhibited version of the song.
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Untitled (Sea)
Gouache on custom arches
hot press panel
11” x 12”
MARCH 2016
The videos of different people singing it were moving. Is
your work related to writing, text or typography?
I am going to answer that question more literally than I
think you intended. I did a series called Note Drawings
from 2006-2008 that included numbered lists of random
thoughts, overheard conversations, and snippets from
newspapers, radio, documentaries, etc. I had deliberately
avoided using written language in my work for many years,
and that series marked my first steps back into it. Language
lurks close to the surface in most of my work, but the Note
Drawings presented actual words on paper.
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Untitled (Acephalous series)
Gouache, acrylic, watercolor
and pencil on paper
23” x 29.5”
Untitled (Acephalous series)
Gouache, acrylic, watercolor
and pencil on paper
30” x 40”
You seem to be very specific about colors. How do you
know what you’re looking for?
In my paintings, a color needs to act in concert, so it
really is never about one color but about how it performs,
behaves, or doesn’t behave in any one painting in relation
to the other colors. But because I am painting figures that
live in politicized space, I also do not divorce color from its
acquired meanings in our daily lives. I cannot fully separate
color from how it functions in the world, how it has influence
that is beyond what it does optically. But I won’t lie, the
optics are crucial.
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In the Art21 documentary, you talked about how your
brushes are assigned to a specific color and never dip
into another. Are you still working that way, and why is
the purity of color paramount?
I have loosened up a little on that cross-contamination
thing. I allow for a bit more flow in my earlier process, like
underpainting with bolder colors that I have to respond to
on the paper but that eventually become hidden or partially
hidden. But, for my gouache paintings in the middle to late
stages of completion, I do still assign brushes to colors and
keep them separate to keep the colors clean. Somehow,
it looks crazy on that Art21 segment—I get that—but it’s
perfectly sensible for what I am trying to do.
Not crazy, just organized.
I am not as concerned about keeping things as precise in my
drawings as I am in the paintings. I am at an art residency
now, playing with materials, making drawings. I have to
release all of the rigid intensity from making the paintings,
and the actual toll it takes on my body, by having drawing
periods in between.
Do you ever find it tiresome to explain your paintings?
I suppose my way of dealing with questions is to ask more
questions. Sort of a deflective mechanism, but one that also
reflects what I hope is the conversational nature of the work. I
don’t really have definitive answers about the final meaning of
work—I have ideas that I invest into each work but sometimes
those ideas are then challenged by the actual paintings
once they are done. I can answer work about the process of
making them more easily than I can about content. I think this
is true of many artists. That is why critiques often lapse into
talk about formal and technical matters.
I love gouache. Why do you love it?
I love gouache because it has a subtle way of absorbing
light while remaining powerfully colorful. It is a modest
powerhouse of a paint. I also love gouache because it is
really hard to spell.
What’s the latest audio entertainment on rotation in
your studio?
To my surprise, I have been enjoying Rihanna and Q-Tip. A
friend recently gave me some music she put together, and I
didn’t know any of it, was just listening to it without knowing
who the artists were. I just asked her for the playlist so I
could answer this question.
What makes you the most happy, and what makes you the
most sad?
Wow, I can’t answer that. The sad answer would make us
both cry, and it would blow the happy question right out of
the water.
above (top)
Untitled (Acephalous series)
Gouache, acrylic, watercolor
and pencil on paper
56” x 40.5”
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MARCH 2016
above (bottom)
Untitled (Acephalous series)
Gouache, acrylic, watercolor
and pencil on paper
81” x 14”
Untitled (Acephalous series)
Gouache, acrylic, watercolor
and pencil on paper
24” x 45.5”
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