To be acephalous is to be without a head. This hefty word and definition may bring to mind snippets of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; a work of speculative fiction set in the titular eighteenth-century hamlet north of New York City, whose citizens are terrorized, brutalized and murdered by the Headless Horseman. The tale goes that each night the spectral, acephalous Hessian soldier rides forth to the site of the ill-fated battle where he lost his head, doomed for eternity to search each night anew.
The headless, lolling figures which populate the pastel landscapes of Laylah Ali’s Acephalous Series are closer kin to Martians than to phantasmagorical fiction, yet no less strange. It is important to note that not all of the figures within this branch of Ali’s work are headless; hyper-flat, their bodies are pressed against fields of green and blue, distinguished by minute differences, micro-expressions, and the slightest changes in costuming that echo evolutionary charts expressing difference over time and hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt.
The best of the series revolves around the realization of headlessness. One piece in particular plays out like a filmic still where a crisply realized form, devoid of a head or a pair of arms sits uneasily on top of a pile of gathered heads. The second figure in the painting, complete with a vacant expression and a sling-bound arm, leans in against the legs of the figure atop the heads. Its at once poetic, referencing any number of literary tragedies, and doggedly funny. Another piece – panoramic in its length – shows five tomato-red heads somewhere between trekking and stuck on an anonymous bank of sand. Even as heads, these characters retain a strange agency and narrative drive. They challenge the viewer; where are they headed?
Ali’s second body of work, Sixteen Drawings, ironically focuses upon the art of the portrait. These sour-faced sitters become an acid-fueled hybridization of Coachella attendees, Renaissance portraiture and elementary school picture day. All articulation present within the Acephalous Series is swept away within these drawings. Bodies become masses – save for a breast, or a chartreuse arm – cocooned within nondescript patterning and with all the style of a wet sweater. While the heads and headlessness, moreover, played a secondary role within Ali’s first body of work, Sixteen Drawings lands a decisive blow toward heads that are by turns confrontational and unnervingly charming.
Combined, Ali’s work returns to Buffalo as a quiet tour de force. Her signature style belies the intimacy and delicacy with which each drawing and painting are constructed, while also layering a formal richness that speaks both within and beyond each piece. It also serves as a reminder, at a moment when our nation is aggressively acephalous, that things could always be worse. Laylah Ali Paintings and Drawings is on view now, through December 22, at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. More information can be found at hallwalls.org