Laylah Ali’s “Greenhead Series” and the pieces that followed are highly enigmatic. Her lecture at the Johnson Museum — circling the gallery space and speaking before the original pieces themselves — effectively elucidated the enormity of the deliberation and precision of the facture that culminated in this enigma. Throughout the lecture, Ali discussed all the entirely premeditated components of her pieces that presented the viewers with the visual and verbal ambiguities that arise through the experience of the pieces.

Such components included her very technical use of colors in painting with the fastidious medium of gouache that created optical effects of illusory three-dimensionality or extreme flatness, or the two simultaneously. She also utilized negative and positive space very carefully — in millimeters, she clarified — in order to create non-hierarchical and democratic yet concurrently clearly representational images. She plays with her “greenhead” characters — figures that serve as riffs off of the classic American “superhero,” rethought as a universal figure with both strength and weakness — in narrative. While many of the pieces portray violent imagery, others portray stillness and minimal movement; Ali noted that she likes to play with “almost boring you” in this way. Finally, perhaps the most enigmatic element of her pieces is their flirtation with the boundaries between abstraction and representation. Ali spoke of how revealing a casual reading of the physical characteristics of her characters — such as skin tone and garb — could elicit such strong associations, and such politically charged ones at that. She noted, for example, that many viewers would assume her greenhead creatures with brown skin to be African American figures — yet she points out that this association is rooted in visual literacy rather than pure representation: “I have never seen any real breathing human that looks like this,” she mused.

It was really Ali’s use of representational imagery to distinguish representation from automatic association that truly resonated with me. As a psychology major, I am constantly thinking about how people view art at a purely perceptual level, and how receiving a work is necessarily informed by past experiences — living in a society where much of our visual stimulation is conglomerated mass media, our past visual experiences tend to inform the same ideas, which could be the reason for the similar evocations that were derived from Ali’s pieces. In a way, I liken Ali’s pieces to Rorschach ink blots, which I have always been fascinated by: while they are simply geometries — organic or otherwise — strewn across a surface, our minds associate with them images by means of our acquired symbol sets. Ali’s pieces, however, while rooted in somewhat of the same derivation, are highly pictorial and not in any way randomized: they represent an artist who has deeply and thoroughly contemplated the aesthetics of her pieces.

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