The Saying of Small Things
“…the great question that our culture faces now is whether its going to have the resilience to redefine itself and take off again.”
Metaphor: a figure of speech in which two objects are compared by identification or by the substitution of one for the other.
From : Literary Terms: A dictionary.
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In writing about Rebecca Sitar’s work in The Independent two years ago I asked: How do you paint memory and what does it mean for memory to be present in a painting? ‘Is memory always about nostalgia or is it rather an analysis of the very process of thinking, a way of ordering our experience of being in the world? It is axiomatic that we cannot make sense of the future, that the present is often confusing. Memory, therefore, becomes the mechanism by which we attempt to give shape and meaning to life; it shifts the wheat from the chaff.’ These points still seem appropriate when considering Rebecca Sitar’s paintings.
Her work is not easy. Hermetic and neither obviously figurative nor purely abstract it does not sit conveniently within the orthodox vocabulary of much contemporary art. That is not to say it is naïve, for it displays a subtle, knowing postmodern detachment , despite its obvious lack of easy irony. Sitar has spent a long time looking at Giotto and other pre-renaissance painters to analyse how forms appear to hover within the picture space and how objects can be read as a series of pictorial signs that mesh different representations with an implicit spiritual narrative. In her earlier works objects seemed to float as in Japanese prints but in her most recent paintings there is a higher degree of figuration and her shapes are more concrete.
Sitar’s painterly language and her strangely emblematic images are imbued with veiled meanings and resonate with compressed, yet oblique personal feeling. These are works that do not deal – despite the painterly marks and the layered acrylic’s luminosity –with surface but with depth. She talks of the desire to create a dialogue between form and metaphor in an arena that allows for a complex ritual of involvement to occur. But involvement with what ? And what are the complex rituals that she is attempting to create?
According to the French social philosopher Jean Baudrillard we do not have much of a future ahead of us Everything has become ‘ nuclear, faraway, vaporized.’ In his writings he argues that the ‘ maximum in intensity lies behind us’, while ‘ the minimum in passion and intellectual inspiration lie before us.’ Put it simply, he implies , that in this disenchanted modern world , culture has run its course. Many would argue that utopian visions now belong to history and that their reassertion smacks of romanticism. So what space can be carved out by an artist with a lyrical sensibility who still believes that art has the ability to be transformative and that the metaphorical resonances within painting continue to have the potential to explore authentic emotions in ways that words and language cannot?
Ectoplasmic, pale and delicate, the shapes in Rebecca Sitar’s paintings hover like traces left on the retina as after-images. Built up in thin often monochromatic veils of acrylic , her canvases, though loosely abstract, are also suggestive of things that we subliminally recognize as familiar – a tree, a petal falling on a leaf- though the accurate depiction of the objet is not the point, for her paintings rather evoke moods and emotions , states that linger like the presence of a person who has just left a room or a fragrant hint of spice on the evening air. It is something of this sensual quality of memory that was suggested by the painting The Cinnamon Peeler in her exhibition Hinterland at the Eagle Gallery, which alluded to the poems of Michael Ondaatje. “Everything,” Ondaatje writes, ‘is reducing itself to shape.”
Like the poet, Rebecca Sitar demonstrates a commitment to looking. To look becomes a form of meditation. Her work illustrates the transformative process from personal response through to the distillation and synthesizes of an experience into a painted surface. It is the process of reaching towards what cannot be quite expressed or said, rather than the arrival at a finite statement that is paramount. The haiku, that intense Japanese three line poetic form, might seem as an equivalent. The painter Prunella Clough, whose visual sensibility Rebecca Sitar to some extent shares, once said before her death : “I like paintings that say a small thing rather edgily.” It is the saying of small things that is so central to Sitar’s work.
Sitar’s forms are implicitly organic and emblematic, as if culled from some deep archetypal image bank, yet it is the process of exploring these through the language of paint that she moves them into an arena that is essentially metaphoric, where the meaning resides not in a direct deconstruction or decoding of an image but in the spaces and the silences she creates. She is forever striving to achieve a dynamic equilibrium within a particular work, where the incongruous and disparate can co-exist at some fine point of balance. Her images are intuitive and enigmatic and the paintings seem at once filled with light and air whilst also formally being about the possibilities offered by the fluid materiality of the paint itself. It is as if she is pushing and testing its capacity through to the point of exhaustion. As if only through the contrast with movement can stillness be found. As T.S.Eliot writes in Burnt Norton “ Only by the form, the pattern,/Can words or music reach/ The stillness, as a Chinese jar moves/ perpetually in its stillness.”
One day sitting on a Manchester bus she saw a young girl improbably decked out in a blue feather boa. Prussian blue and the heavenly blue so prevalent in pre-renaissance paintings, along with the icing sugar pink of frescoed church walls came to mind. These colours found their way into The Black Squirrel , a painting where something apparently soft and vulnerable , something that appears to be either slipping out of or emerging into the picture plane, is ambiguously bound by thin strips like slivers of bark peeled from a silver birch . And what is suggested by such an image? It is as if these skin-like skeins are attempting to pin down something ephemeral. The marks on the bark, as in her painting Silver Birch, can be read as scars or wounds. Loss is a leitmotif in Sitar’s and many of her paintings are imbued with the melancholia of absence. Objects can be understood as reliquaries, standing in for a body, a person or a presence that is not there. Icarus falling from the sky in the corner of Breughel’s painting as described in Auden’s poem Musée de Beaux Arts comes to mind; things half-remembered, the incidental caught out of the corner of the eye.
In The Plum Tree the shape of a tree is suggested not by the tree itself but by the negative space left within the surround like the shadow on an x-ray plate. A tree remembered from childhood, one which she sat under as a small girl in Croatia , was a catalyst. There is something Proustian here, yet Sitar also seems to be implying that memory can only ever be approximate, an equivalence for the actual and once lived experience. The blank space suggested by the tree’s absence gapes as if waiting to be filled with what remembered fragments of the tree the memory can muster. The strange potato-shaped and feathered form of Night Guise suggests the outline of something that was previously present which has somehow dissolved to leave a gaping emptiness, evoking the ghostly traces of the Turin Shroud. This is absence made tangible. In Feathered Cloak the right hand image hovers ambiguously beside a nearly erased leaf. It is substantial and material, whilst also seeming to be no more than the insubstantial and ephemeral remains of some previous presence. The cloak, itself, suggests something ritualistic, shamanic, and almost magical and seems to imply that all serious artists have to adopt the transformative cloak of the imagination in order to see the world afresh; that the creative process is, to some extent, a mystical one and that all real art is generated by subtly altered states. As Yeats wrote: “ I made my song a coat/Covered with embroideries/Out of old mythologies / From heel to throat.”
For art to have a continued relevance into the twenty first century it has to find a new aesthetic language of interconnectedness, beyond the cynical, endlessly deconstructing and commodified narratives of late postmodernism. As the American philosopher and theologian David Ray Griffin points out in his essay ‘Peace and The Postmodern Paradigm’ we will not overcome our present frayed disconnectedness until we reject the view of the world on which our current way of life is based. We live in transitional times and have to make choices that involve not only politics but ethics and aesthetics. Art has all too often become commodified, hijacked by the corporate collector and the market. But it has a much older agenda; to be the barometer of the human spirit. It is artists such as Rebecca Sitar, working on the margins, engaged with alternative debates and paradigms, who try to say small but essential things with insight, who still might point a way forward along a road not quite taken. What she paints is certainly of the world but it is the poetic associative qualities of the objects she paints that are important. It is the thought processes, which expand outward from the subject, and to which these objects connect us – questions about the past, history, memory, our relationship to and our place in the perceived and actual world – which are the real subject of these paintings.