Peeling the layers: Maryanna Williams’ prints reveal centuries-old artifacts as new

Maryanna Williams’ vivid prints are created through the lengthy, technical process of reduction linocut printmaking. Courtesy of the artist Maryanna Williams’ vivid prints are created through the lengthy, technical process of reduction linocut printmaking. Courtesy of the artist

All art is political, but printmaking can take it to another level. We only need to consider the history of the Works Progress Administration, Soviet government propaganda, or even the Black Panther Party to see how print pieces can be immersed in ideology. Literally using knives to cut through the public conversation, printmakers are able to work quickly to respond to a rapidly changing environment. For the sake of impact, prints can be reproduced for mass consumption, until they lack any real monetary value. Some artists, like Kathë Kollwitz, refused to number their prints at all. 

Of course, there are always rebels who operate outside of ideology and tradition, and Maryanna Williams is one of them. And though all art may be political, the politics of Williams’ art is based in quiet reverence and respect for the process of creation. “Seeing Through the Layers: Reduction Linoleum Prints by Maryanna Williams,” currently on display at the Staunton Augusta Art Center and available for viewing online, is a tribute to all artists who aren’t necessarily tearing down systems with their work, but creating entire universes through the painstaking details of their art.

Williams’ work consists of large-scale, color prints of antique vessels and robes, mainly from Renaissance Europe. Patterns and colors are clearly her main area of interest, and no detail is overlooked. Some cuts are as thin as pencil marks. In actuality, the vases that her works are based on are only a few inches tall.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Boy, you know, this thing was probably made, I don’t know, in the 1600s?’” says Williams, “And they never could’ve imagined somebody in the 21st century using it to create a new piece of art.”

This conversation with artisans from 400 years ago is one of the “political” parts of Williams’ work. Vases and vestments that could be written off as decorative become icons. She pays homage to the original object and its creator by making them arguably much grander than they ever were in real life. And her dedication to recreating meticulous details mirrors the work that these artists did centuries ago.

Williams uses a technique called reduction linocut printmaking. It brings to mind Japanese-style woodblock printing, with translucent inks, multiple colors, exquisite patterns, and floral motifs.

“The title of the show, ‘Seeing Through the Layers,’ speaks to my reduction linocut process, a layering of translucent inks where the final color is atop all of the previously printed colors,” says Williams. “The technique imposes a valuable looseness to my approach to making art, keeping me engaged in the creative process throughout the execution of the print.”

Every different color seen in her work is a slightly altered version of the same block, with a little bit more carved away. Once she decides to move onto the next layer, she can’t go back. So unlike political propaganda, the number of final prints is extremely limited, usually no more than 10 prints of any given image are made. Williams calls it an “unforgiving process,” but one that affords her surprises along the way that are both “challenging and delightful.” Usually, a series of prints of the same image will take her about six to eight weeks of solid work, five hours a day. Even the most anti-capitalist printmaker would have a hard time arguing that Williams’ work should belong to the people at little to no charge.

Observing the work on the wall in her studio, Williams points out another political dimension, though this one less intentional: There is an innate sensuality to her work. All lined up, the vessels take on a feminine and figurative quality. This is noteworthy when we consider that most of the original objects her pieces are based on were likely created or worn by men. Williams is highlighting the hidden sexuality of items in the domestic space, especially when she selects vases that have flowers practically exploding off of them.

“It’s not like I think, ‘Oh I want to do something that has that content of holding,’ but I think what I do does have that unconscious thing: the robe envelopes, the vessels hold things.”

Through the many hours she puts into her work, Williams is inverting the quick and dirty reputation that printmaking can have. She is showing us that there is something political in the process itself, completely separate from the content. And the intentional and unintentional consequences of it not only imbue the viewer with a new appreciation for the medium, but also an appreciation for the tiny vessels that many of us would pass by without a second glance.

Williams still gets excited when she comes across one of her Renaissance objects in real life. She delightfully recalls spotting the original green vase behind “Vessel Number 6” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

“My work is not about realism or scientific illustration, but about transforming subjects from nature and art into images that express my deep passion for the intense beauty that I see in the world.” —Ramona Martinez

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