REBECCA SITAR MIND BREATHS
‘One should not long nostalgically for the past, for there is none to recover: there are only the elements of past experience perpetually growing and shaping themselves into something new. True longing must always be creating, the making of a new and better thing’
Rebecca Sitar makes paintings in a vein of contemplative abstraction. Her images are intuitive and enigmatic. She states that her practice as an artist is an attempt to create objects that are beautiful – for beauty reminds us what it is to be human.
Such claims for painting, when translated into words can sound imprecise. Debate about painting in the last ten years has moved the language one use to talk about it involuntarily towards theoretical polarities. Notional absolutes that can lead to a series of categorisations which determine a painter’s meaning even before the work itself has been experienced, or thought about. Theoretical labels, however helpful for critics and curators to theme often quite disparate artists into contextual groups can obscure much subtler workings across and borrowings from the variety of standpoints. And painters must still deal with that most intrinsic and liberating problem with painting:
‘Talking about painting there’s no point. By conveying a thing through the medium of language, you change it . You construct qualities that can be said, and leave out the ones that can’t be said but are always the most important.’1
So how does one translate the qualities that end up making a painting beautiful? How does one arrive at an understanding of beauty which is not simply to do with an aesthetic sense of equilibrium within an image, but relies upon a carefully modulated series of expressive, painterly events, to speak of beauty as a kind of consciousness? How do these paintings, with their apparent arbitrary focus on a momentary sensory event, attain the eloquence to speak of the ‘immense sensibility’ (2) of experience?
‘What do I start from? From the subject to be expressed? From sensation? Do I start twice?’ Robert Bresson 3
In her introduction to the exhibition Slow Burn (1998) Sacha Craddock observes that Sitar’s paintings‘ contain a lack of fear that characterises a ..recent generation,’. She is talking specifically about a perceived freedom to move between abstraction and figuration in relation to finding a starting point to making a painting. The origins of Sitar’s images are not easy to define because they do not rest with one idea or one subject, but are rather an accumulation of references – some purely visual, some to do with words, or with the way memory accumulates as a series of sensations. Sources for the work show a sympathy towards simplicity, the formal balance of a Japanese print, Haiku , the figure ground relationship in early Renaissance painting. They are also about continually testing the possibilities of the fluid matter of paint to arrive at a moment of ‘stillness’.
Sitar’s language in paint is distinctive, delicate. Though her mark making involves direct intervention with brushes and formally the work offers up the suggestion of particular areas of significance within the picture plane, the overall effect of the paintings is one of constant reduction and shifting of focus. These canvases refine a sequence of improvisations which cannot be divorced from the physical presence of the painting itself but which move inextricably towards opening the void of the canvas. The pale substance of the shape that hangs in the corner of Shield (2000) is metamorphosised in the action of blotting away the paint into the merest, transparent impression. The object (shield or shroud?) hovers, neither material or immaterial within the surface of the canvas.
Again and again in these paintings one witnesses this transformation of matter. One can trace in the exhibition a gradual movement away from an investigation of just process, towards a seemingly more subjective introduction of the potential for some kind of narrative within the images-
White Beam (1999) is approximately the size and shape of the renaissance portrait by Roger Van der Weyden (4) Sitar has pinned up on a postcard in her studio. Though the two are unrelated I begin to make associations: something to do with the delicacy of colour and the texture of Sitar’s surface , which is silky like the patina of gesso . What the paintings share is an arresting sense of presence, one literally there in the delicate lines and abstracted planes of the woman’s head, the other in Sitar’s image of a kind of ‘unseeing’ of the original. Stained purple residues cross the surface of the canvas edge to edge, in a band that establishes a depth of field within an image. Behind and over these a yellowish, ceramic tone is obliterated by a white shape. This ‘aura’ seems to have been achieved by a kind of negating of the paint. It is difficult to tell if the white has been introduced as thinned down acrylic , or simply the result of washing away what is behind.
In other small paintings Orange Scent (1997) and Halloween (1999) the trace of flows of paint right across the surface of the canvas create the sense of arrested movement, while the spatial openness of another painting Yellow Blossom (1998) is made palpable by the glimmering skin of the patch of varnish that sits on the uppermost surface of the canvas. Each painting is individual in its treatment, although all share the same restrained dichotomy between substance and insubstance. It is a gentle play of subversion. One predominant feature of all the work is the way that Sitar establishes space in the images-
If these paintings start from sensation – and the evocative, poetic titling (Warm Air, White Beam, Ashfelt. Maranta…) would imply that they do-
‘for thinking is active and continuous…while to understand is to bring to an end.’ 5
Emma Hill 2000
1. Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, 1995
2. ‘Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider web of the finest silk threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every airborne particle in its tissue’ Henry James. Quote recorded in the artist’s notebook.
3. Robert Bresson : Notes on the Cinematographer, 1990
4. Roger Van der Weyden: Portrait of a Lady. About 1460
5. Stravinsky 1965