“I wanted to make a figure that I hadn’t seen before–one that acted as a question mark that prompted both me and the viewer to ask: Who is it? What is it? Why does it exist? Rather than a figure that comes with historical associations that immediately reveal themselves.”–Laylah Ali
When unsuspecting passersby look up to see the third installment of the Walker’s Billboard Project on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, what comes to mind may indeed be a question mark. A lone horizontal figure flies across the long narrow billboard. Its tight blue bodysuit and red cape suggest certain affinities with that particularly American fictional hero, Superman. Belying the obvious signs of superhero-dom, however, are signs of trouble and misidentification. Our flying ace, against a matte green backdrop, seems not quite airborne but rather frozen in suspension. Its perfectly round head is covered by a black mask punctuated with staring eyes set in an unsettling green face. Its spindly legs and arms are outfitted in matching black boots and gloves. It is no Clark Kent, and refuses our desire to read it as something we already know. Who or what it is is anybody’s guess.
Since the mid-1990s, Boston-based artist Laylah Ali has been making drawings and paintings inhabited by strange bobble-headed figures not unlike the billboard protagonist. Created through a meticulous, time-consuming process, the seemingly simple, cartoonlike figures are often engaged in ambiguous, sometimes violent interactions. In Ali’s renderings, the perpetrators and victims are easily confused, marked only by surface distinctions–costumes, signs, body language, and accoutrements–that may be easily swapped like dresses on a Barbie doll. These enigmatic creatures are more bewilderingly familiar than familiarly graphic.
The Walker’s Billboard Project continues this fall with commissioned pieces by Takashi Murakami and Matthew Barney.