The latest exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Contemporary Art (WCMA) catches you by surprise even as you enter the room of large, softly lit white walls encrusted with lines of small squares of pastel blues. You feel as if entering a tranquil yet tightly ordered space; closer examination of the paintings, however, reveals something much more ominous.
The Greenhead Series by Professor of Art Laylah Ali ’91 consists of 80 of these window-like paintings, and over 40 of them are currently on display at WCMA. Each painting is untitled and depicts long, skinny, brown-limbed, androgynous figures with massive round green bulbs for heads. They all remain completely anonymous. The pieces were painted between 1996 and 2005, using gouache on paper.
At first glance the figures all appear nearly identical; they are initially distinguishable only by changes in clothing, accessories – particularly masks and belts – and some variation in their awkwardly angled limbs. It soon becomes clear, however, that each face is completely different: In the small white spaces of their eyes and black mouths, Ali paints raw anger and confusion, surprise and vengeance. The greenheads are all involved in complex and often ambiguous struggles for power, acts of violence and sometimes cries for help. The uncertainty inherent to each drawing leaves it to the viewer to decipher and interpret the struggle in each event. These conflicts are often accentuated by the greenheads’ clothing: Some wear simple green or striped clothing, suggesting oppression or incarceration, while others – usually fewer in number – wear plain white clothes and sometimes extravagant headdresses. The latter often appear to be the oppressors, instigators of disturbing experiments. Other times, they appear to be victims of excessive and grotesque aggression at the hands of the former. They may even believe they are nursing patients gone rogue.
In keeping with her deliberate subtlety, Ali only rarely changes her color scheme of soft blues, clean whites, dark browns and olive greens, and usually these changes come in small – almost imperceptible – punctuations of red. Small dots suggest bullet wounds; tiny smears alternatively infuriate and soften bulging eyes or form thin scars on otherwise plain faces, each of which serves as a canvas in its own right.
In other places, Ali uses red prominently, making tension and violence explicit and painfully present. In one such work, a tall greenhead is strapped into a striped undergarment with a small child-like greenhead being choked by the cloth holding them together. Around the adult’s waist are several bombs. The adult seems to be crying out, but we do not know if it has willingly strapped the bombs to itself or whether it is crying out for help. What we first notice, though, is that the adult is wearing a bright red shirt, immediately capturing the viewer’s attention. The red evokes a greater sense of danger within the painting than even the bombs themselves.
The canvases take on surrealistic qualities as Ali transposes cleanly and almost comically severed limbs with expressions that sometimes reveal pain, other times rather humorous obliviousness. The bizarreness is nonetheless grounded in very human and perceptible emotions. Eventually the depictions become more personalized as Ali focuses on individual greenheads in greater detail, often revealing deeper and more numerous wounds. After some time walking through the exhibit, the pale blue tiles no longer feel like serene windows into a strange world: They create an environment that is almost institutional, even claustrophobic, and taut with discomfort and tension. Each face is merciless in its expression, its eyes inescapably haunting. What may seem humorous locally – scenes are punctuated with sneakers and dodgeballs – may evoke dramatically different responses in the context of the rest of the work. Though isolated by space, the paintings form a continuous whole, connected by both their ambiguity and style. Suddenly it feels as if you are in a small white room looking out on all sides to a world of chaos, suffering and even revolution.
Greenhead Series will be open at WCMA until Nov. 25. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a deeply affecting experience or even a simple, thought-provoking stroll.