House of Somnus

House of Somnus, viscosity etching on paper by Michael Kelly Williams

House of Somnus, 1983, 18 x 23 inches, viscosity etching on B.F.K. Rives

Technical information
House of Somnus is a viscosity etching by Michael Kelly Williams. It was hand printed at The Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in New York City by the artist. The viscosity etching process was invented by Stanley Hayter and Krishna Reddy in 1950 at Atelier 17 in Paris. Williams learned the technique from Krishna Reddy at his Atelier at NYU in 1982. It is a revolutionary one plate color printing process. It involves creating a relief plate (copper or zinc are common) either using acid or power tools. In the case of House of Somnus, nitric acid was used on a zinc plate to create the levels. The plate was then hand scraped and burnished. Hand engraving and aquatint textures were added.

Blue ink was applied intaglio. That is, the blue ink was placed across the surface of the plate then wiped clean. This blue ink clung to the etched depressions, aquatint textures, and edges of the plate. A roll of transparent white was rolled across the plate followed by a roll of red then yellow. It is an artist proof. No edition was made. The plate is now lost.

House of Somnus is a homage to artist Bob Thompson (1937-1966), an African-American figurative artist who appropriated the compositions of European masters in his work. He was a great admirer of Charlie Parker and used a lot of bird imagery in his art. Somnus is the Roman god of sleep. The etching has the composition and spatial sense of Piero della Francesca (1415-1492). a painter of the Early Italian Renaissance. A large figure of an angel is moving from left to right into the picture plane. She is outside of a house with no doors and is shown wearing the mask of Anubis, the Ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife. She is nude and holds her right hand in a gesture of anticipation and urgency as she walks. Another angel is entering the interior space in the back far right corner of the print. There are two strong verticals in the composition dividing the space. The first is a tree right outside the entrance; the second is a pillar inside the house at the foot of which lie two dogs—a reference to Cerberus, Greek guardian of the underworld. Water is shown flowing in the bottom foreground. A figure of a man is emerging from an iron bed. His form is fused with the bed, and he is reaching out with one leg and one hand holding a bird, which is about to take flight. In the background an empty bird cage can be seen, its recent occupant already airborne. Thompsonʼs familiar pork pie hat hangs on a nail.


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