Extreme violence

Laylah Ali strips back the veneer of civility to reveal its brutality

Scenes of unimaginable horror unfold in artist Laylah Ali’s tiny gouache paintings on paper at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery. Images of amputations, lynchings, bullying and mob violence become even more disturbing due to the appearance of the figures acting out this violence.

Painted in a simple, straightforward manner, the Boston artist’s cartoony, round-headed figures, called Greenheads, have the appearance of better fed stickpeople. They’re dressed in tiny sneakers and sportswear or the vaguely ominous uniforms of the military, police officers, nuns or priests, and their appearance is often humorously iconic. Their identical features of nostril holes and saucer-like eyes convey the flat, simple look of road signs or some international code.

The uniforms give the first indication that all is not right amidst the bright, robin’s egg-blue skies of perfect days and cartoon simplicity. Often distinguished from one another only by the most superficial details, the similarity of Ali’s figures makes the extreme gestures of violence they act out even creepier. Ali plays with how identity and affiliation are coded and how political affiliation, friend or foe can be conveyed through the simplest means.

Dirty wars, political torture, religious persecution, or the bloody civil wars acted out in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are the horrifying foundation of Ali’s images. The very ambiguity of the signs Ali uses gives the work a damning universality: These evil-doers could be the henchmen of Pinochet’s Chile, Klansmen, colonialists or the homicidal mothers trucked out on the pity TV of “Oprah.”

In one series of paintings, a gaggle of caped crusaders break off each other’s limbs with the icky ease of pulling legs off a fly. Violence is as neat and clean as the figures themselves, and therefore even more disturbing. For 21st-century people fed a constant diet of extreme violence, these images of cleanly amputated arms and legs, which leave a round, red marrow, only serve to indicate the true brutality that underpins civilization.

Relying on these cryptic signs, Ali somehow shows a human “fight or flight” tendency to act suddenly and violently according to the merest alteration of wardrobe or behavior. In one image a couple of Greenheads dressed in Klan-ish robes look like they’re trying to make peace with two non-robed Greenheads who hold “prop” heads above their own in some primitive gesture of intimidation to make themselves look taller. Another work shows several prim Greenheads wearing nun-like habits and standing before a priest, their faces scraped and bandaged, as if they have just returned from an ugly brawl.

Like shell-shocked soldiers who have participated in the most vicious cruelty, the Greenheads often clutch “trophies” like human limbs or belts and look a little stunned by what they’ve done. In an image of three figures dressed in SWAT-team gray, they offer their booty of dismembered limbs up to a shocked figure dressed in medical white, as if to say, “Fix it.”

There is an eerie sense in many of the images of the most base and animalistic behavior seeping out from beneath the clothing of civility and propriety. In one disturbing image, a small, frightened-looking Greenhead with the proportions of a child looks intimidated by the larger “enemy” figures in the scene. In a succession of comic book-style panels, however, the little guy warms to the task before him and acts out scenes of torture with his teeth bared.

Ali’s work may be even more resonant for locals because of its thematic similarity to Atlanta-based artist Kojo Griffin’s work. Both deal with worlds given over to every possible permutation of violence. Both flirt with the idea of treating race in their paintings while also avoiding the topic with their purposefully, racially ambiguous creatures. Like Griffin , Ali depicts a world of inexhaustible pain, violence and trauma, by using a shared imagery of innocent, cartoonish creatures peeling back the skin of cuddly, sweet gentility to reveal the beasts within.