The beautiful formed things caught at the wrong moment so they are shapeless, awkward moving to the clear.

Michael Ondaatje

The Gate in his Head

The Cinnamon Peeler-Selected Poems 1989

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A recent small canvas by Rebecca Sitar is called The Cinnamon Peeler. The title offers little direct reference to the image, which is a skeletal, leaf-like shape placed centrally in the picture plane. A form that is without substance lying somehow just within the surface of the paint.

The title is an allusion to the writing of Michael Ondaatje, in whose novels and poems Sitar has found a rich seem of associations . It is not given in a literal sense but it does offer a way into the painting –something to do with the colour and veils of paint which become suggestive of the scent of spice lingering in the air. The painting evokes the sense of an atmosphere, a sensation and one realises that deciphering the object that is depicted is not the point.

Culturally there is tremendous pressure to ‘read’ paintings –to decode meaning by reference to style, concept, or process and while this is helpful in establishing why certain work has the power to stay in the mind after the object is no longer in sight, it is always a retrospective view. It is difficult to describe what really happens in the moment of seeing. As Paul Valery knew ‘seeing is when you forgot the name of what you are looking at.’

Any painter of Rebecca Sitar’s generation must inevitably evaluate the act of making a painting self-consciously. Neither figurative nor purely abstract, Sitar’s practice has been described as ‘hermetic’ in its resistance to following any single orthodoxy. The paintings are self-evidently process led. The surfaces bear the trace of a post-Richter detachment and yet they also show things that seem profoundly personal. Particular, emblematic objects or incidents in paint are held up for inspection , requiring and eliciting a subjective response.

The individual visual language a painter develops is seldom the result of a linear progression and it is often difficult for the artist to consciously articulate why the image has arrived in the way that it has. In a recent visit to Sitar’s studio in Manchester we talk as much about books, ethological artefacts and particular landscapes as we do about the paintings. Asked about Feathered Cloak she responds with a series of references which are both literal and metaphoric. Sitar describes cycling through a marsh near Manchester , watching geese cross a path and wanting to reproduce in the work the sound of their beaks sucking water from the grass. She talks about an empty cage of feathers, a Maori ceremonial cloak seen in a museum, the use of symbol in Renaissance votive painting, about wanting to make a more obvious use of mark on the surface of the canvas and of a process of ‘lifting away’ the image from layers of acrylic varnish. A way of painting in the negative, of making absence tangible.

Sitar attempts to create objects which are the equivalents to that ‘‘immense sensibility ’ of which Henry James wrote. An interconnectedness of the senses which is never finite. The paintings are underpinned by a sophisticated knowledge of how to construct an image formally (it is actually very hard to get away with placing the visual drama centrally , as she does in a number of the recent works) but their great strength lies in a sense of arrested fluidity. The best of them appear like the after-images of thoughts, true to a sensation of consciousness that is simultaneous: sensory, visceral, intellectual and animal.

Emma Hill 2004