SHAUN WILSON: REVISITING THE DECAMERON
This residency is part of a wider investigation ‘Winter Light’ examining the beauty and horror of plague through contemporary art. ‘Revisiting the Decameron’ deconstructs ‘The Decameron’, a series of novellas written by medieval author Giovanni Boccaccio around 1348. These stores digress seven young people sheltering in quarantine at an abandoned villa outside of Florence during the Black Death pandemic. The new works will situate the ten days of stories into a suite of ten works contextualising the backdrops of the Black Death and COVID-19.
The initial story of the Decameron presents a group of seven young people fleeing the Black Death in Florence to a deserted villa where they held up for two weeks and concocted the 100 stories. This first work presents medieval Florence at the start of the plague spreading within the city walls. From an aesthetic perspective, I drew reference from some of Chagall’s early lithograph works especially winter scenes by Russian print makers in the pre-revolution period. I use the concept of winter as an allegory for the coming of plague which has it seems o be a commonality through my COVID-19 themed works from last year and into this year. The work is a culmination of hundreds of layers of acrylic and ink washes, charcoal, and medium rubbings that makes the paper on completion feel like leather. The photos don’t really do the work justice as my phone camera tints a heightened contrast level but you get the idea of where they’re going. I’m attempting to produce one of these artworks every week created mostly late at night in my studio. The image is based on a landscape painting of Florence during medieval times where I’ve taken care to note the terrain and walled city elements as they would have been at the time of when Boccaccio started to write his novellas.
This week’s work focuses on the introduction of the second day as Boccaccio describes the group led by Filomena venturing into a shady meadow where she orders Neifile to lead the days stories. I was drawn to the idea of representing landscape as the background of where these stories unfold. An aspect that I’m most interested in is the role that place intervenes within the groups of stories. In this instance, not only is place itself an overlooked aspect of the Decameron, but rather it establishes an important experience for the ways that the stories are manifested over the duration of the ten days which, moreover is simply ignored throughout critical readings of the book. The role of the meadow in the structural effacement of the ten stories contributes to the way that each story is later told and experienced. While each story has its own imaginative place mapped into the specific narratives unfolded, the mechanics of such are dependant on place thus intertwined within both the story and the narrators of each instalment.
I’ve spent three weeks trying to develop drawings that failed miserably (and have been delayed due to a COVID self quarantine when I visited a regional Victoria COVID site – art imitates life or life imitates art, whatever way you think of it ). After numerous attempts at failures and uninteresting compositions, I’ve found that oil painting on canvas opened up a way to convey what I was trying to achieve that the works on paper could not. So… I started painting and found the barrier for me in the drawings was the lack of dimensionality and volume thats present in oil paint, being my native medium. In essence, I found that there were two main barriers, the first being the texture and volume of oil paint offers something for me that drawing lacks, and second is that the project so far has revealed a need to consider the emotive context of the locations of each day’s story telling rather than merely addressing the sense of place in these daily rituals as a pictorial representation. The new works are on stretched canvas measuring 100cm x 100cm each and I feel like, although costing me a fortune in art materials, by changing the medium I can now focus on the emotive connectivity of these locations in ways that are more aligned to how we connect through place, that is, through an emotive connection rather than a figurative spatiality. Here’s a revisiting of leaving Florence for the tranquility of rural outskirts. And the scope of the paint application, being more like ice cream than pigment, is free of impasto additives and 100% paint. It’s luxurious and at the same time ridiculous in how many litres of paint that I’m going through, but, things are finally working.
In this week’s painting, I’ve gone back to reconfigure the second drawing in a way that conveys the sense of place in Filomena’s day of story telling that was lacking in the first. In the second day of the book, it describes a meadow and atmospheric effects of morning that I’ve represented here by paying attention to a morning sky using a newly formed palliate combination of oranges, Naples yellow, and greys. These are all referential in the Boccaccio description of what the meadow was like on that morning described in the introduction of Day 2 and I wondered what it must have been like through the seven participants view, escaping the plague ravaged city to the tranquility of the colours present in the Italian landscape. I lost count how many layers that this painting has, maybe twenty of thirty underneath what you see on top. And in doing so, I’d forgotten what it’s like to consider the landscape in context to oil paint – warms and cools, the state of light, contrast, hue, and colour relationships. In this one especially, I’ve become attune to some of the colour work in Post Impressionist works, especially Seurat, and also how Pointillism could lay two colours next to each other but the human eye would read a completely different colour than what is evident. This is much akin to plague and the effacement of lockdowns where the emotional tonality of a society in restriction blends into a monochromatic quagmire. I’m still learning how to paint again as I go, its been a while, but here are this week’s efforts.
This week’s painting has been tasked to apply more attention to light, especially around the third day of story telling. Boccaccio mentions a green garden filled with lush plants opening up the scene for the later heat of the day. Since I’m trying to avoid depictions of actual things and fixtures; instead to pay closer attention to colour and light, this week’s painting brings with it a depiction of the atmosphere esteemed from Filostrato’s day of stories. Here, the garden is represented by a green pictorial plane and the atmosphere especially in some of the day’s later events correlates to the broader brushstrokes and palette knife work thats a slight contrast to the smaller and narrow flicks used in the gestural marks located in the previous week’s paintings.
This week’s painting examines the fourth day of story telling. It begins with Filostrato as ‘they speak of those whose love came to an unhappy end… [where] the sun had already chased all the stars from the sky’. (Boccaccio, pp.300-307) The places he describes feature the sun dipping after lunch where the group naps then proceeded with story telling. Within these stories, the mood changes to unhappy endings and I’ve reflected the agency of these narratives in the change of tones, especially in using more greys and Phthalo Blue tinges.It’s also the first time that I didn’t use green as a base.
I’ve been working on some larger scale paintings of the Villa meadow and also reworking the existing paintings done so far with raw umber washes to bring out an antiquity in the painting surface. One of my many criticisms of the paintings is that they’re too clean. I’d imagine that over the next week I’ll be attacking everything I’ve made in the current series to bring out an aged feel to the subject. I like the idea of destroying surfaces in order to bing them back. The allegorical aspect that emerged this week is treating the flowers in the meadow like a remembrance field much like poppy fields in battle paintings of the Somme. The investigatory aspects of the residency are opening up new series of possibilities as learning milestones gained through making mistakes. I’ve also located a makeshift tripod to hold my phone. Expect a lot more studio shots to come. These are the challenges of working solo in lockdown. My youngest daughter Sophia who is also a painter, and perhaps much more astute in the medium than her father, decided to pitch in and film some new video documentary material for me that you’ll see over the next week. I’m also getting a bit eye weary of raw timber on my studio walls. I might do some interior decorating this week?
I love painting except waiting for them to dry. And these paintings usually have between 2-3 kilos of oil paint per canvas. So there hasn’t been much progress this week apart from finalising five of the eight paintings with a few umber washes to give the paintings an antiquity aesthetic. The Poppy series is progressing more so as it’s the only task I can keep on moving forward with this week until the other three paintings dry. I’m sure that the villa storytellers had slow days although I suspect that a group of ten, rich, obnoxious kids squatting in a luxurious villa in the middle of the Black Death might have had the same problem. Here’s a pic of me in the studio this week and a video I made from my first residency chat sessions.