Kenneth Alfred, Intermede II, No. 8 (2014)
- Etching and aquatint, 20 x 15 cm. Edition of 10. Printed and published by the artist, Montreuil, France. €300.
After I looked and looked again, whittling down the dozens of entries to this iteration of the Prix de Print, Kenneth Alfred’s etching Intermède II, No. 8 endured, emerging—to my eyes—as the clear winner. It demonstrates a command of intaglio techniques only attainable through experiment, rigor and serious investigation on the plate.1 This is an artist who knows print, but it is really the work’s playful conundrums that compel. Its painterly qualities and the centrality of gesture are surprising within such a modest scale—the artist has wrestled systematic chaos into the precious constraints of printmaking. There is innovation on tradition apparent too. Though I had only a digital reproduction to judge from, I imagine the actual etching is beautiful to hold in the hand.
Born in Trinidad in 1959, Alfred has worked in Europe since receiving a French governmental scholarship for study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in 1984. Today he lives and works in Montreuil, on the eastern edge of Paris.
A painter and printmaker, Alfred interlocks the two media so that one bolsters the other, and unravelling his order of printmaking techniques posed a challenge to me. Intermède II, No. 8 was printed from two plates—one in black and one in green, as he explains:
I partially scraped away an image on the black plate, laid a ground, and then drew the dark motif with lavender lift.2 I then laid another aquatint and etched the dark motif. The lines on the green plate were etched, then I laid a coarse, then a fine aquatint. I did the printing myself coup sur coup with the green over the black.3
The resulting layers span the entire tonal range: snatches of whitish paper at the back of the image push out beneath the forms while the darks coagulate on top. The midtone aquatints on the black plate have been scraped into, like oil paints worked with a palette knife, but the texture, bitten into the plate, suggests erasure marks dragged through charcoal dust. Alfred further attacks these tones with pin-sharp vertical scoring. The second, brackish green plate establishes an etched line that clots at points and zigzags over everything, embedded in passages of black.
The poured or dripped black lavender lift motif sits like a scaffold across the picture plane and pins the composition in place. Alfred has worked with this device for years, flipping it back and forth between paint and print, sometimes dissolving it, sometimes—as here—beefing it up, changing mood with ease. He has revisited and stretched this pictorial idea, testing the boundaries of self-reference; an artist can carry a motif for life, making things occur again and again. (Think of Picasso’s bull and Cézanne’s mountain, to name the most obvious.) In Intermède II, No. 8, the accent of the motif is on tension.
Alfred has talked of getting an impulse to create from landscape, of being prompted early on by the watercolors of Winslow Homer, of Turner’s late watercolors and of lands seen that never meet the sky in a semblance of flatness. Musing on “ominous Flemish skies” he asks, “What if someone should put a bucket under such paintings, anticipating rain; would the grey clouds then pour down tinted waters?”4 Is this what we are looking at in Intermède II, No. 8?
I was drawn to Alfred’s print through the tacit authority (and also modesty) of his presentation: the image was accompanied by no words—he let it stand for itself. The late art historian Michael Baxandall conceded a dialectical opposition of word and image, concluding that language is not made for pictures. With Intermède II, No. 8, Alfred has created a work that, through its compact variety of printed marks, speaks volumes.
- An intermède was a theatrical musical interlude, often incorporating ballet, between the acts of a play or opera in 16th- and 17th-century France. Jacques Callot (1592–1635) produced a series of lyrical engravings after Giulio Parigi (1571–1635) that circle around the form. Alfred’s work, however, cleaves to no specific musical reference.
- The lavender lift technique is a direct contact method where concentrated lavender oil is painted on to a thin layer of hard ground. The motif is carefully wiped clean with alcohol and then etched.
- Quote taken from email correspondence with the author, July 2016.
- Painting to the Limits of Landscape, extract of text by Laurence Boitel, Un Parfum de Dessin (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Ateliers 2, 2006), translated from the French by Leslie Schenk, quoted on the artist’s website: http://www.kennethalfred.com/EN/Paint/3peinture_texte.html.