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Crystal Bridges is temporarily closed to support efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. Follow our updates.

Museum Way Podcast: Men of Steel, Women of Wonder + Interview with Artist Laylah Ali

In this episode, host Stace Treat has an exciting conversation with Men of Steel, Women of Wonder curator Alejo Benedetti. Then, Alejo sits down with Laylah Ali, an artist featured in the exhibition, to discuss her process and artworks featured in the show.

 

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Episode Transcript

Stace Treat:
Welcome to Museum Way, the podcast of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. We’re sharing all the ins and outs of the museum, from the galleries to the trails, the architecture and more. You’ll learn the Museum Way of Crystal Bridges. Men of Steel, Women of Wonder is a new exhibition developed by Crystal Bridges Assistant Curator Alejo Benedetti, that examines art-world responses to Wonder Woman and Superman. The exhibition features over 70 paintings, photographs, installations, videos and more by a wide range of artists. Today we’re talking with Alejo, all about this exciting exhibition. And then Alejo, takes the reigns of Museum Way, to interview Laylah Ali, a featured artist in Men of Steel, Women of Wonder. So let’s jump into this episode of Museum Way. Welcome Alejo.

Alejo Benedetti:
Thanks for having me.

Stace Treat:
So glad to have you on the podcast and I’m really excited to talk about this show. So let’s kind of do this. The first thing I want you to do though, for our listener, is explain who you are and what your role is at the museum.

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure. So my name is Alejo Benedetti and I’m an assistant curator here at the museum. And I focus on the contemporary side of the collection.

Stace Treat:
Okay. So how long have you been with us?

Alejo Benedetti:
About three years now, a little over three years.

Stace Treat:
Yeah. We started about the same time, interestingly enough.

Alejo Benedetti:
We did, yeah.

Stace Treat:
Yeah. And also this is your first major traveling exhibition that you’ve put together. Tell us a little bit about the idea for this Men of Steel, Women of Wonder. I’ve heard you say before it started with underwear.

Alejo Benedetti:
Yeah. I often say that it started with underwear and part of that has to do when you look at Superman and you see the iconic red underwear, I always think it’s funny or I had this realization that all this money has been poured into creating this character, he’s been around for so long and yet he still has not found a better way to keep up his underwear than a big yellow belt.

Stace Treat:
Yeah, why a belt?

Alejo Benedetti:
Why a belt? And this was my exact question and Grant Morrison actually has a fantastic response for that and actually a great explanation, which is that the creators were actually looking at circus strongmen. And looking at that outfit because they wanted to immediately signal to people that this was an incredibly strong character, without him having to do any sort of action, they wanted to communicate that.

Stace Treat:
So this is really born of a bygone era?

Alejo Benedetti:
Absolutely. Yeah, no it’s 1930s, 1940s for both of these characters. Superman burst on the scene in 1938, that’s right during the Great Depression. It’s when we needed heroes. And so this show grows out of that moment and grows out of the fact that, if we look at labor prints from that time, that it’s these strongmen that are going to help rebuild America. And so Superman is the super heroic extension of that. Similarly, 1941, Wonder Woman bursts on the scene, World War II, it’s right before the US… It’s the same month that the US enters World War II. And she is the super heroic extension of Rosie the Riveter wrapped up with pin-up girls.

Stace Treat:
Oh yeah, kind of like the Vargas style pin-up girls.

Alejo Benedetti:
Absolutely.

Stace Treat:
Yeah, yeah. Well, so yeah Wonder Woman was literally fighting Nazis.

Alejo Benedetti:
From the very outset, yeah absolutely. And so this is completely linked to popular culture, it’s completely linked to the present moment. And that’s something that doesn’t go away, that’s something that these characters continue to be very invested in the moment in which we live and they’re constantly evolving over time and that happens in the comics, in the movies and as you’ll see in this show, in art work responding to these characters.

Stace Treat:
Yeah, so we have to get it out of the way, straight up, I’m a comic nerd, you’re a comic nerd.

Alejo Benedetti:
We are comic nerds.

Stace Treat:
And for the so called comic nerds out there, there’s two objects in this show that are particularly of interest.

Alejo Benedetti:
Yes. So sensation one and action one, the holy grails of comic collecting, are going to be in this show. It’s so cool. It’s such a special thing because we hear about these, we read about these, we know them, but it’s not very often that you get to actually see them in person. They will be here for the entire run of the show. That’s insane.

Stace Treat:
And for those that aren’t comic nerds, Action #1 and Sensation #1, this is the first appearance…well Action #1 is the first appearance of Superman, so it is literally the genesis of that character. And then Sensation #1 is the first cover appearance by Wonder Woman, correct?

Alejo Benedetti:
Yeah. Yeah-

Stace Treat:
Highly collectible comics.

Alejo Benedetti:
Highly collectible comics. Yeah and the show, it’s very much a show that is focused on sort of art world responses to these characters. But we wanted to include these two comics, because we very much recognize that Harry G. Peter and Joe Shuster are important artists as well and this is where it started and so we needed to have these two objects in the show. Because it helps tell this larger, really impressive story.

Stace Treat:
Let’s talk about some of the artists and artworks that are in this show.

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Stace Treat:
It’s a really amazing gathering of eclectic people and also, I might add, some international artists. So this isn’t just American artists, this is also artists from around the world that are responding or using these characters in some way. Take us through the show a little bit, how are we going to encounter? What are the themes?

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure. So we start off with a section that is called The Heroes We Know because these are characters that we interact with on a daily basis when we call our moms Wonder Woman or we go to the gym and we see the guy wearing the Superman shirt because he wants to feel pumped up. So in that first section, it’s featuring artists like Fahamu Pecou, who casts himself as a sort of Superman type character. And it’s actual a direct reference to Barkley Hendricks, who is his art world hero. And so this is one of these ways that artists interact directly with- [crosstalk 00:06:56]

Stace Treat:
Yeah, he’s actually, Barkley Hendricks, that painting was actually in our show Soul of a Nation last year. So kind of a cool come back around, if you will-

Alejo Benedetti:
Absolutely.

Stace Treat:
There’s that echo. We also have Mel Ramos, the late Mel Ramos, who was a Pop artist.

Alejo Benedetti:
Absolutely and it’s sort of amazing that we were able to get both his Superman work and then also his Wonder Woman work. They’re reunited and they’re going to be side by side in the show and it’s so cool. It’s something really amazing. I had the privilege of getting to have a phone conversation with Mel a few months ago and it’s amazing because he also was a fellow comic nerd. And so there’s a lot of that in this show.

Stace Treat:
Right. So the next section, Origin Stories, that’s where we’re going to see the comic books and what are some other things that-

Alejo Benedetti:
Yeah, so we’ll see the comic books in there and then we’ll also see a number of labor prints, some WPA works, just sort of from that moment. We’ll also see this amazing, enormous, six foot tall circus strongman poster, that’s just going to blow folks away. And so you see that and you get to think about it in relation to Superman. You also have a number of pin-up paintings and you also have Rosie the Riveter, Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, a gem from our collection and one that fits perfectly into the show.

Stace Treat:
Very cool. Yeah, I’m sitting here going through it in my head because full disclosure, I’ve worked on this project with you for over a year so we’re very invested and very excited to see these works actually on the wall.

Alejo Benedetti:
Yeah, and it should be said that Stace has not just worked on this project with me, Stace has been my closest collaborator on this, cheerleader and also just superhero in his own rite.

Stace Treat:
I’m kind of like the Jimmy Olsen to the Clark Kent, something like that I would say. I also would describe it as I’m your Robin. But we’re not talking about Batman here, this is not about Batman. So let’s move on through the show. What’s the next section?

Alejo Benedetti:
The next section is A Glimpse in Humanity and it’s sort of split into two subsections and the first is focused on this idea of ultimate power. And so in the section you have works by Valentin Popov, where he’s taking actually these 18th century gilded frames that used to house Russian icons. And he actually paints Superman and Wonder Woman inside them and he calls them Saint Superman and Saint Wonder Woman, which initiates this powerful conversation about how we often talk about these characters as being American gods of sorts.

Stace Treat:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alejo Benedetti:
And so we have works like that and then in the back half of that section, you have an entire subsection that looks at vulnerability. And this is really an important crux of the show because vulnerability is the reason why these two characters have been around for so long and why we’re able to connect with these characters that otherwise would be so beyond anything that we could image in strive for because they’re so perfect, but what you see in the show and what you see in the section and in the artwork that’s in the section, is the chinks in the armor and that’s when we’re able to connect with them, that’s when those characters become more relevant to us, as a result of that.

Alejo Benedetti:
And so we have amazing works in this section, one in particular, Jason Bard Yarmosky, this work is going to blow you away. It’s a 12 foot wide painting, it’s of his grandmother, who was living with Alzheimer’s. And it’s not only this commentary on how we think about aging in relationship to these heroes, presenting her as a mature woman, who is there wearing a Wonder Woman costume and still looking powerful and amazing. But then also thinking about how she was living with Alzheimer’s, she was this everyday of her life and it was something that she approached with bravery. And he likens it to the type of bravery that it takes Wonder Woman to go out and save the world every day.

Stace Treat:
Yeah. I think anybody that’s been touched by Alzheimer’s, which is most people, would understand that dilemma. What is a difficult disease, but a lot of people that do suffer from it do so with great dignity and grace.

Alejo Benedetti:
Absolutely.

Stace Treat:
I will also say that this is like the kryptonite, we think of the vulnerabilities kryptonite for Superman and being bound by a man is Wonder Woman’s weakness-

Alejo Benedetti:
Yeah.

Stace Treat:
But we are avoiding the term weakness in this show.

Alejo Benedetti:
Yeah, there’s a distinct difference between a weakness and a vulnerability and it’s related but a vulnerability, we very much see as an amazing super power, allowing folks and that what…there’s a tremendous amount of power in that.

Stace Treat:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). We could all take a lesson from that.

Alejo Benedetti:
Absolutely.

Stace Treat:
As we’re hoping to give. So I final section, Defender of Innocence, tell us all about this section.

Alejo Benedetti:
This is by far the largest section, it’s broken up into a number of smaller subsections. You first encounter Comic Whitewash, which takes it’s name from Mel Casas’ work, that’s in that section. This entire subsection is all about representation within the comic world. So as soon as you walk in you will see these two amazing, enormous photographs by Renee Cox, from her Raje series. And it’s her saying, “Look, Wonder Woman’s fantastic but Wonder Woman also has a track record of being a white woman who saves other white women, primarily.” And Renee Cox said, “Look, I’m going to create this character who’s wearing Pan-African colors, she casts herself in this role and she presents herself up there as this powerful beacon, who has all the same powers and weaknesses or vulnerabilities of Wonder Woman. But now with an awareness and a commitment to fighting off stereotypes and bringing this message of hope to a broad spectrum of people.”

Stace Treat:
Yeah. And this section’s really all about persons of color making the point that their lack of representation historically in comic books is a big deal and that it’s like trying to re-appropriate these characters in different ways to rectify or comment on that. What are some of the other subsections?

Alejo Benedetti:
Some of the other sections, we have a section on gender and sexuality, which has iconic works, Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, which every art history book talks about this work. But also, in that same section we have a work by Sarah Hill, who is a trans artist, who is responding directly to Dara Birnbaum and using that as a starting point. And when Sarah, this is actually a performance, it’s a work that is a performance and so we will have the costume that they created but then also video documentation of it. And the whole premise of this is that Sarah puts on the costume and starts spinning around and eventually falls down on the ground. And it’s this whole commentary on how it’s a constant performance for Sarah to perform certain gender roles. And understanding that there is always this connection with a secret identity and always this connection to having to have this performance that’s just part of everyday life for a trans person.

Stace Treat:
Right. And I will note that both of those performances of featuring Wonder Woman spinning, is also a direct response to the Lynda Carter, 1970s sitcom. Where it’s Lynda Carter spins to transform from Diana Prince into Wonder Woman. And so it’s using that moment of feminist era of the 1970s that Birnbaum was responding to.

Alejo Benedetti:
Yes.

Stace Treat:
And then you have this wonderfully contemporary performance artist carrying on this dialogue and idea. I think it’s just really brilliant. Okay, so we also have another section that deals directly with the, what we would call, refugee and immigrant status of these characters.

Alejo Benedetti:
Yeah, so that section is called Aliens Among Us and it features Latinx artists. And so people like Enrique Chagoya, who’s a huge, huge name, does this amazing, very large work on paper that features Superman having a rather rude conversation with Tlaloc, who was an Aztec rain god. But then also Dulce Pinzon in this section, Vincent Ramos, amazing different ways that these artists are connecting with these characters. And understanding that both Wonder Woman and Superman are immigrants. Wonder Woman comes from Themyscira, Superman is not only an immigrant but he’s an alien and he’s escaping from an exploding planet so he’s a refugee as well. So all of these things are built into these characters, so of course they’re perfect for artists and particularly Latinx artists to explore.

Stace Treat:
Right. And certainly question, now it’s such a big issue as we all know, the border wall and immigration policy, big deal right now. And it’s kind of hard not to think directly about the symbolic resonance of these characters responding.

Alejo Benedetti:
Yes.

Stace Treat:
Okay. And then our final section?

Alejo Benedetti:
Our final section is called American Ambassadors and this section is comprised of a number of different artists who either were born elsewhere and came to the States, were born here but might have an appearance that doesn’t not look like what is often considered the standard way that an American would look. And I say that in the context of someone like Roger Shimomura, who is a third generation American of Japanese descent and both of his works that are in the show, these large paintings, are dealing with the fact that he’s often seen and there are certain stereotypes associated with him and how he looks. Because he’s of Asian descent, that he naturally knows martial arts. And this is, he doesn’t know martial arts, he was born in Seattle and he has all of these connections that he is exploring in his work.

Stace Treat:
Yeah, and he was interned in a Japanese camp as a young boy as well. So there’s that specter of that kind of history that we contend with here in the United States. And it seems a particularly apt way to address that, because one of his paintings he’s literally punching Superman in the face.

Alejo Benedetti:
Right. Yeah and that work is called American vs American too and this is the part of the crux of this, that both of these individuals are Americans and that’s power of this really incredible work.

Stace Treat:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I’m just excited as all get out about this show and I know you are. This has been on your mind for how long? A show like this?

Alejo Benedetti:
Years, many many years.

Stace Treat:
Many years. Well, we’re going to have a lot of great programming that’s going to go with this as well and I’ll talk a little bit about that here in a minute. But Alejo, thanks so much for coming by Museum Way and talking about this awesome show.

Alejo Benedetti:
Thank you for having me.

Stace Treat:
So I’m going to step out and I’m going to let Alejo take over this next segment as he talks to Laylah Ali, she’s a featured artist in Men of Steel, Women of Wonder.

Alejo Benedetti:
So we are talking with Laylah Ali, one of the artists who is in Men of Steel, Women of Wonder. And I think I’d like to just start by addressing kind of a broader question, which is when folks look at your work, you have a very specific style and one that even as your series change over time, you can always tell that it’s a work by you. And I wonder if you could speak about your inspiration for landing on this style.

Laylah Ali:
So, I guess when I think about it’s, right now we’re looking at two drawings that I have in the show here and very good printouts actually. And these are color pencil drawings I did of this kind of superhero figure or figures. So, I went through a period where I was making these caped figures. I call them caped figures rather than superhero figures, because they were meant to fly and they’re very kind of thin bodies, usually have little broken pieces to them. But they’re all alive and all struggling to fly. So these are colored pencils, I work also in paints quite a bit. And I guess the simplification of the figure for me or I guess I’ll call it the paring down of the figure. When I was in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, at that very beginning when I was still a student, I was much more expressionistic in the way that I worked with the figure. I’ve always been interested in the figure and now at age 50, I think this is kind of part of my life’s work, is to examine the figure. I don’t think I’m going to become an abstract painter at this point, although you can never rule anything out.

Laylah Ali:
But in that struggle to talk about a lot of the things I was interested in, using the figure as one of the ways to do that, I became frustrated in graduate school with how the mark of the hand became a point of deflection for meaning. So in a world that’s more comfortable talking about technical things than hard meaning and struggle, the way that a rope would be made, if I’d make it with a little charcoal and then I’d smudge it and I could make a really beautiful rope but the rope was a noose and the noose was hanging a figure. But what would happen in my critiques, was people in my cohort would really just talk about how the rope was made. And so this became, over and over again, there are just different examples of how the making, if there was any kind of mark of the hand or beauty or interest, residue of the making, that became where the attention would go. The comfort level was with that. And so what I tried to do was to take away as much as I could, the interest in talking about how something was made.

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
I’m not going to make this in such a way that gives you any pleasure in talking about how I laid down this color. So there still was lots of attention to things, like in these drawings we’re looking at, I’m stroking the pencil a certain way to get the cape to flow. But honestly, one of the things I really wanted to do was to drain that conversation, to do enough to hold the piece and to give it a kind of technical integrity but not so much that it fetishized the technical.

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
So hitting that balance between really paying attention to the technical, enough so that in some ways I disappeared from it.

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
Yeah.

Alejo Benedetti:
And also as a way to truly direct folks to think about what you’re actually trying to communicate as opposed to just simply the mode of how it’s done.

Laylah Ali:
Yeah and I mean so what becomes for me an interesting question is, why does it need to be in the fine art realm, right? And I think what this realm allows in some ways, is that there still is attention to what kind of red? So there’s still attention that is focused on kind of visual things that matter and in an environment where people have the space to take that in. So that does become an important–what’s the word–like the theater for where these need to play out, works better in a fine arts context.

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
So that was part of the spectacle of painting for me, is what people expect of painting is part of the calculation. There is an expectation that painting will provide a certain level of spectacle and so I can provide some of that but without painterliness.

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
Yeah.

Alejo Benedetti:
And I wonder also, sort of related to that, the scale of your works. Sometimes you do work large, but especially in the case of these works, they’re very small-

Laylah Ali:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alejo Benedetti:
And so that has a different impact and I wonder if you could speak about that.

Laylah Ali:
I mean, that’s been a really interesting question now that I’ve done this since what? The late 90s? And so there was pressure… so I started small because I was working in a small studio, just the way you start about your economics, right? I had a small space and I didn’t have a lot of money so I made things small. And I also love the relationship of being really close, so I’ve said in the past that I come from a reading background, being really close to things and having that kind of control over everything I’m looking at, was appealing to me. But I think, as time went on and I had more success in my career, there was definitely pressure to go bigger. I mean, this goes with the whole art market imperative of going larger because spaces became larger. To get people’s attention there was a certain kind of scale you needed to aim for. And my response, for the most part, was to resist that. And almost probably to… I can only say that my impulse was to be like, “No.”

Laylah Ali:
And actually there was a time I went to postcard-sized painting, like in mid 2000s, because I was getting pressure from my then gallery to go bigger and I was just like… I came back with these postcard sized paintings, right? And so has been interesting to watch for myself because I… another example is when I was asked to do – what is it called? – The Project Series for MoMA, early in my career. And when I sat down with the curator, they said, “We’re thinking a billboard in Manhattan, would be a great project.” Which seems amazing, right? You’re working on a billboard. I was kind of horrified. I was like, “God, there’s so many billboards and my work is just…” I recoiled from it.

Laylah Ali:
What I really wanted to do was kind of like a comic book that could be distributed through the museum for free. That’s what I pitched back. I was like, “A billboard not so much, but let’s do this book.” And so they said, “Yes,” and we did a wordless, graphic kind of comic book. I don’t know what to call it. It’s not really a comic book, but it acts like one. And that’s what we did and still I think that was the right decision. But my impulse was to stay close to the viewer, intimate, not to blow up scale so much that you weren’t basically one on one or one on two, right?

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
But that kind of conversation has always been more… Like the one we’re having now, it’s a much interesting… I like this. I like the one on one, more things can happen and it’s more of a trust relationship with the viewer, rather than I’m going to blow you away, let me tell… it’s like, “I’m the master, let me tell you something. I’m big, you’re small.” And I feel like sometimes there’s artists who can do that really well, but more and more I think that is just the expectation of how art should be. It should overwhelm, it should master the space. It’s not like this hasn’t been in the past, of course it has but more and more scale, architectural scale possibilities have become kind of crazily large.

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
And I don’t know, I’m just not interested in the master narrative or the real estate narrative because it dominates almost everything about how we live right now. So I think small in some ways is the way to get into people’s head space and I will continue to I think probably work in various scales that are around what actually human sizes are. Again, as artists anything could change. I could make a movie. Who knows? But it’s not where I’m at right now.

Alejo Benedetti:
And I think that there’s this sort of intimacy that is associated with working smaller and especially thinking about in the context of the show that we’re doing, Men of Steel, Women of Wonder. Those are characters that start off in comic books and these things that are meant to be handled and interacted with on a one to one basis. So I often think about the role that that level of intimacy plays, especially in relation to those characters. But I also wonder, for me I think about the beauty of a character like Superman, is that you can use Superman to talk about a whole plethora of different things. And sometimes in sort of looking at your work, it seems very much like, while it can at times feel sort of fantastical or other worldly, that it’s very much connected to the present moment.

Alejo Benedetti:
The section that your work up here’s in, in the exhibition, is actually focused on the sort of vulnerability of these characters. And part of our argument in the show is that it’s impossible to relate to a sun god or a goddess, but when we see these moments where the humanity peaks through, that’s what actually endears those characters to us and so there’s this tremendous strength in seeing these moments of vulnerability or humanity peeking through. And I wonder if you can talk about how you pull that into these works or your practice more broadly?

Laylah Ali:
I think in some ways all of the figures I make are somewhat either explicitly or subtly connected to what I’ve been through in my own life. So it’s not something I talk about a lot but of course the way that I humanize them or keep in touch with the range that they have is to keep them connected to what I’ve been through as well, physically, mentally, racial, gender-wise. All of those things that I’ve experienced, they inform the figures. And so I never think of them as… And I think the one thing that keeps something like this, because they are rather pared down, that keeps them having somewhat of a range is that connection. And then I think the other thing is the thing I was just talking about, which is the… How do I want to say it? It’s the availability of how they’re made. There’s no mystery in how these were made. You don’t look at these and be like, “How’d she do that?”

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
I have no idea, right? There’s a way that it’s clear how I made them. You can see that they were made in much the way that many people could sit down and operate a pencil like this and that connects it to the person looking at it. Now some people would rather be blown away and want to see things that they couldn’t do but other people like that connection. They like the feeling that, I can do that. And I suppose I’m more connected to the latter. But that connection with the viewer and also I don’t title things so… Or I title series but don’t title individual things and part of that is an invitation to the viewer to name. And so I guess what I’m pointing to is, there’s a connection with me, which I don’t often talk about but there’s also, I’m reaching out to the viewer to say, “You know what? How would you name this?”

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
So it connects with their own story or question like, “What are these? Those aren’t superheroes. Oh, is that a broken arm?” I don’t name it “Broken Arm” or “Cut off Arm” because you can see it and then the viewer can say it. They can say whatever they want and they can misname it or rename it and that’s a way to get them engaged. “Those don’t look like superheroes,” whatever it is.

Alejo Benedetti:
Right. And I think that sort of playing with that, the fact that these are not… They look decidedly un-heroic. They have spindly limbs and again at times, as you mentioned, they’re missing hands-

Laylah Ali:
Yeah.

Alejo Benedetti:
And that is not a sort of heroic view of some sort of character. They feel, in that way, more approachable, less apart from us because we see that.

Laylah Ali:
Well, I’m looking at the one with the red capes, they all have their arms chopped off. It’s always good to remind myself of what I’ve done. And then in the other one, one of the figures has both arms chopped off. And they’re all falling, I mean I’m interpreting these as they’re all falling. But they’re all also trying to like, some are giving into the fall and some are trying to struggle to get back up again using their feet, like bicycles, to bicycle up. It’s often the way I think about flying when I dream of flying.

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
Yeah, which somehow it connected probably to when we were birds, we’re bird related at some point. But this idea that your legs are circling and you can kind of uplift, like you can go up that way. So yeah.

Alejo Benedetti:
And I also think about, looking at these and thinking about falling, I’m thinking about how there’s something that we can all connect to, that fear of falling. But then also especially if you see this caped figure, that all of a sudden is falling out of the air, it seems like something has now been removed from that figure. We expect to see them flying and so…

Laylah Ali:
I mean again, I haven’t seen these in a while. So I think I made these in 2005, maybe. Is that true? I don’t know. Maybe about 2005-ish. So I’m looking at them a little fresh right now, which is funny. But I think also I’ve made them in groups, so there’s four of the black capes and three of the red capes and so there’s a way that they’re not alone, right? So it’s not a singular figure falling, which would be much more lonely. They’re falling together. I suppose you could interpret them as versions of the same figure in different stages. But yeah, there’s something about I put them in groups because they have company. They’re not alone in this, which I think seems to work for making them less likely to fail because they’re in these groups.

Alejo Benedetti:
So we can move on from-

Laylah Ali:
Sure.

Alejo Benedetti:
… just talking about these. But you did write something for a catalog-

Laylah Ali:
Oh yeah, I forgot about that.

Alejo Benedetti:
… that I thought was really beautiful. And I wondered if maybe and you certainly don’t have to but if you’d like to either read that aloud and then talk about it a little bit.

Laylah Ali:
Sure. So this was, basically we were asked to write something about the pieces that we had in the show. Was that right? Yeah, okay. So I wrote this and this was written more than a decade after I made the piece, so it was me looking at the piece and going like, “Oh, I need to write something.” “First, it’s about the cape. It’s a mark in the sky. Sometimes it looks like a question mark. Second, it’s about defying. They can’t fly for long or even at all, they are pulled aside and are prevented from entering the sky by sky patrol. Third, they won’t die. It’s remarkable how adept they are at refusing death. Despair is harder to avoid. They curl up on the floor sometimes, knees to chin and weep until they can’t breathe. But then they are up, dry mouthed and dazed, seeking water.” Yeah. The yeah isn’t part of it.

Laylah Ali:
Yeah I did a lot of these caped figures, I was just cleaning out my storage space the other day, I have so many of these it’s very funny – there was just a period where I was just making these. I have a whole series where I made them on newsprint and then ironed the newsprint afterward and they have this really interesting, like what it did to the colored pencil, it kind of like, the heat on the colored pencil, all these fascinating things that I forgot about. So yeah, I went through that and it’s like I don’t do caped figures anymore, so I did those for a couple of years. Yeah.

Alejo Benedetti:
And sort of on that, you don’t really do caped figures anymore and these two works are from an earlier body of work that you did. And you’ve obviously continued to make work and actually part of the reason why… Actually the reason why you are here right now is because you’re working on a print right now. I wonder if you could speak about that project?

Laylah Ali:
Well, the print that I’m working at the University of Arkansas printmaking shop with Sean Morrissey and we trying to come up with… I did some preliminary drawings and these are also kind of heroic figures as I do, kind of tragic but empowered heroic figures. And I came up with a series of four drawings that we are translating into, I think they’re going to be silk screens. And they’re all in kind of these classic heroic stances, kind of looking off to the side. And have these appendages coming from their head, they’re almost like limbs but they’re flowing in the wind. And then they have these flaps that I made that come off. So instead of a cape, that’s funny I said I don’t do capes, because they don’t have capes but they have these flaps that would be over their abdomen clothes but in each of the portraits, the flaps are opened and act like capes. So if the flaps, which I called kind of like abdominal coverings, they kind of come off with these almost like Velcro things and then they flap open.

Laylah Ali:
And so each of them have one of those and inside there’s all of these workings, these kind of things, patterns inside and holes in them. So that’s what we’re working on and each has a different kind of emotional affect happening and a really different palette for each one. So that’s what we’re aiming for and we’ll see if we get there. But yeah, they are descendants of these figures. They’re kind of more complicated, harder to identify what the visual… What’s the word? Associations might have been. They’re just weirder, you know?

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
They’re kind of weirder, you can’t say Superman with those. You can be like, “I think they’re heroic,” but yeah. So that’s what we’re working on right now.

Alejo Benedetti:
And these aren’t the first prints that you’ve done?

Laylah Ali:
No, I haven’t done that many prints. So I did an etching back in 2000 for Exit Art, which was a non-profit space in New York that was great. But I think they don’t exist anymore, I think that’s true. I hope I’m not saying that in error but they did this fundraising portfolio that I was part of, so I did that. And that’s a real print that I worked with a master printmaker on back in 2000s. That’s in a lot of collections but no, I haven’t done a lot of prints. I’ve actually avoided prints, just because it’s kind of a whole process and you’re involved in someone else’s fiefdom, right?

Alejo Benedetti:
Sure.

Laylah Ali:
So, I’ve kind of avoided it but I’ve opened up my process a little bit more in the last year to see what printmaking might have to offer. I did a silk screen actually, a couple months ago in New York for – Printed Matter has a fundraiser and I did one for them and that turned out well. But yeah, this is new for me, so part of the reason I came down was to see what would happen. It’s a way to experiment with media for me, which I think is important to keep things moving and open. So yeah.

Alejo Benedetti:
I also think that, in hearing you talk about, especially with your paintings, with the gouache paintings, that you seem like someone who is extremely process driven.

Laylah Ali:
Yeah.

Alejo Benedetti:
And so it seemed to make a certain amount of sense to me when…

Laylah Ali:
I think it can. I think the problem with my process is that I’m really autocratic. So my process, which is weird enough and has no kind of like, it just is what it is. It doesn’t necessarily mesh with other autocratic processes. So I think the thing about printmaking is how to be in a print studio. And Sean’s done this, so far that’s been true, is kind of keep it open and possible. Because printmaking can be really driven by the things they have to do to make the print the way it is, right? Which makes sense but painting and drawing is just, I think, more driven by whim and impulse, which I also like. So yeah, it’s been good to see and I think I’m going to do another print with Tamarind’s litho. We’re trying to figure that out. So I’ve kind of made two years of printmaking projects, just to see what happens, see how it goes.

Alejo Benedetti:
Well I think as sort of a closing question, it only seems appropriate since these works are in a show about superheroes, if you could talk about your art world superhero?

Laylah Ali:
Well, we were just talking about one of them as we came in, which would be Jacob Lawrence. I’m a big fan of Jacob Lawrence. I want you to collect more Jacob Lawrence here. And one of my favorite, I have lots of favorites but he has, I think they’re prints actually, John Brown series. Which I did a project on John Brown, but it wasn’t a 2D image project, like drawing painting because I think Jacob Lawrence, John Brown project just nailed what that could be. There’s no approach to that that I would even want to try because I think that’s such an amazing work. I did an online interactive John Brown piece as my John Brown thing. But yeah, Jacob Lawrence would stand out for me. I’m trying to think of someone else. Hero’s a funny word but people who I see, I’m just really grateful to see them, when I see them I think, “Oh right, yeah. I’m happy to see this, it makes me feel… Yeah, like there’s a connection and it inspires me.” So yeah, I’ll leave it with Jacob Lawrence.

Alejo Benedetti:
Great.

Laylah Ali:
Okay.

Alejo Benedetti:
Well, thank you so much for your time and for coming here and speaking with me.

Laylah Ali:
Great, thank you.

Stace Treat:
On April 19th, our museum-wide party, Art Night Out, is free for everyone. Come dressed in your favorite superhero outfit in honor of Men of Steel, Women of Wonder. Enjoy wacky live performances and local street graffiti artists, along with a late night dance hour. Other activities include graphic novel screen printing and an interactive comedy between Superman and Wonder Woman. Food, drinks and a cash bar will be available throughout the evening. Tickets available now at crystalbridges.org. Thanks for tuning into Museum Way. We hope you enjoyed the episode and tune in each month to hear more. Head over to our social media channels and leave a question or comment about what you’d like to hear on future episodes. I’m Stace Treat, and I’ll catch you next month right here on Museum Way.