Lecturer’s Art Reveals Emotional Tension

March 13, 2012

Four sets of hands reach toward the sky. There’s something cartoonish about the painting at first glance, but on closer inspection, it is clear that the hands are bound at the wrists and there is a reddish stub where one hand should be. The image is stark and intensely thought provoking.

Newspaper photos of Shiite Muslims with their hands in prayer and tobacco executives raising their hands to take an oath before Congress are two images that inspire artist Laylah Ali.

Ali at work

“Those little things have great interest to me,” Ali said of the hands captured in the newspaper photos. She described clipping and categorizing scores of images from The New York Times and other papers to inspire her work on the PBS television series Art21.

Ali will discuss her work and reveal more about what inspires her when she delivers Mary Baldwin University’s 2011–12 Firestone Lecture in Contemporary Art at 7:30 p.m. March 19 in Francis Auditorium.

The Buffalo, New York, native teaches at Williams College in Massachusetts, where she also earned her undergraduate degree. Ali later received a master of fine arts degree at Washington University in St. Louis.

The biographical account below is excerpted from the Art21 website:

The precision with which Ali creates her small, figurative, gouache paintings on paper is such that it takes her many months to complete a single work. She meticulously plots out every aspect of her work in advance, from subject matter to choice of color and the brushes that she will use. In style, her paintings resemble comic-book serials, but they also contain stylistic references to hieroglyphics and American folk-art traditions. Ali often achieves a high level of emotional tension in her work as a result of juxtaposing brightly colored scenes with dark, often violent subject matter that speaks of political resistance, social relationships, and betrayal. Although Ali’s interest in representations of socio-political issues and current events drives her work, her finished paintings rarely reveal specific references. Her most famous and longest-running series of paintings depicts the brown-skinned and gender-neutral Greenheads, while her most recent works include portraits as well as more abstract biomorphic images. Ali endows the characters and scenes in her paintings with everyday attributes like dodge balls, sneakers, and Band-aids, as well as historically and culturally loaded items such as nooses, hoods, robes, masks, and military-style uniforms. Ali has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis; and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; among others. Her work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale (2003) and the Whitney Biennial (2004).

Each year, the Susan Paul Firestone Lecture Series in Contemporary Art brings noteworthy visual artists and art critics to campus. The three-day residency includes a public lecture and close interaction with art students through class discussions and critiques. This lecture series was initiated through the generosity of Ray A. Graham III and it honors the creative work and accomplishments of Susan Paul Firestone ’68.