December 18, 2011–April 1, 2012

laylahDrawing, language, and writing are intrinsically linked in Note Drawings, an intriguing exhibition of 39 works of art by ´╗┐Massachusetts artist Laylah Ali on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center December 18 through April 1, 2012. 

Ali found inspiration for these works in snippets of overheard conversations, media sound bites, and her own thoughts—all of which she collected on scraps of paper. The phrases were organized into numerical lists, and five to ten were hand written on each piece of paper. Although the notes might at first seem randomly selected, Ali wrote and arranged them with poetic attention to rhythm and syntax. She then drew loosely related or contrasting figures over the text, sometimes incorporating the written words in the drawing and other times obscuring them.  

Ali’s images of people have been compared to those found in comic books, American folk art, and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. In past work, her figures were ambiguous in terms of race and gender; this is not the case with Note Drawings. Created in 2008, these works contain figures whose defining characteristics are emphasized in their bodies, masks, headdresses, veils, and other clothing and accoutrements. The characters’ intentions are never clear, just as the list of phrases remains vague in meaning. However, throughout the series, an undercurrent suggests the threat of violence: a wig slips slightly off the head of one character, another’s clothing is ripped, and another is wounded. The same ominous tone is found in the text, with phrases such as “secretly working on a nuclear bomb,” “blood pouring into (your) boots,” and “suiciders.” 

In Note Drawings, Ali is undoubtedly commenting on global events of the day, but she also conveys that meaning is never fixed, that representation and language are slippery, unstable, and incapable of expressing a single truth.  

Laylah Ali: Drawing Notes is one of six exhibitions comprising the The Drawing Season, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s in-depth exploration of the art of drawing as practiced by contemporary artists.

Above: Laylah ali, untitled from the Note Drawings series, mixed media on paper.