“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
has created the third design for the Walker Art Center’s ongoing Billboard Project displayed at Hennepin Avenue and 12th Street in downtown Minneapolis. On view July 15–September 14, her untitled work depicts a lone horizontal figure flying 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. This flying ace, against a sky-blue 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 her 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.
Ali was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1968. A graduate of Williams College, she participated in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program and received her M.F.A. at Washington University, St. Louis. She has been represented in numerous group exhibitions, including at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston; Seattle Art Museum; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and the 2003 Venice Biennale. Most recently, her work was shown in the 2004 Whitney Biennial of American Art. Solo exhibitions of Ali’s work have been presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1999); the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2001); the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2002); and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (2003).
The Billboard Project is part of Walker without Walls, a year of programming spanning the Twin Cities made possible by generous support from Target. By utilizing public and urban spaces, Walker without Walls programs provide direct access to art and culture. The Billboard Project continues this fall with two more commissioned pieces.