One of the most outstanding explorations artist Kerry James Marshall features in his racially conscious paintings is that of re-envisioning art history. A long running series of “Vignettes” depicts his own narratives within the themes and imagery of well known art historical genres, placing black subjects in the context of scenes from the famous, familiar and established settings of the canon of art history — thereby calling attention to the discrepancy in cultural norms. In keeping with his truth-wielding and ultimately inspiring message on the themes of the Black presence in America, his artistry, craftsmanship and unflinching sense of style are a shining beacon in our collective oeuvre.
Kerry James Marshall – Vignette (Wishing Well), SIGNED etching 2010
Marshall’s large scale multi-layered etching Vignette (Wishing Well) harkens back to the romantic era of Rococo, a time in the 1700s when paintings gallivanted with frivolity, light heartedness and an ideal of beauty emphasizing the pretty and the feminine. He describes an archetypal Rococo scenario involving a woman throwing coins into a wishing well and a man spying on her from behind a tree, though in Marshall’s version the black figures are intensified by the dark backgrounds surrounding them. Floral motifs and pink floating hearts follow in step with the decorative flourishes of the genre, eloquently placing this fairytale-like story within the vocabulary of works describing black culture— simultaneously throwing a spotlight on a centuries-old struggle and elevating a public perspective of black lifestyle and experience. And to crown the accomplishment, this work furthermore normalizes the presence of black subjects in the canon of art history, and in such fine fashion.
As for the physical creation of this ambitious work, notes from the Paulson Bott Press printing house that helped him realize the masterpiece are rich in description. Utilizing a myriad of intaglio etching methods, every inch of the surface is filled with a subtle and quiet poetry, with shifting textures achieved through their combined labor-intensive printing prowess. “We started with a softground drawing of the basic image, then added successive plates (with aquatints, spitbites, sugarlift, and drypoint) to flesh out the color, value, and density. Vignette (Wishing Well) relies on a smorgasbord of techniques, including chine collé and hand painting, and it is a testament to patience. The print comprises six plates made over a two-week period. Kerry introduced the idea of shaped plates to reinforce the structural components in the print. We all had fun wielding the metal nippers to cut the pieces of copper that were needed. The multiple tinted greys required the plates to be inked ‘a la poupée’ (several different colors inked on each individual plate). Four printers work 2.5 hours to ink and print a single print, and it takes an additional 1.5 hours to print hearts, chine collé them, and hand paint the prints before they are ready to be signed.” Even with the very limited edition of 50, it seems a monumental feat.
"Floral motifs and pink floating hearts follow in step with the decorative flourishes of the genre, eloquently placing this fairytale-like story within the vocabulary of works describing black culture..."
And to simply look with pure aesthetics, this work holds a powerful yet soft command— the delicate color scheme is gracefully balanced with the deep black shapes and smoky greys, and the composition dances lightly around a strong and balanced foundation, giving an impression of melody and soul.