Manchester-based artist Rebecca Sitar’s recent joint exhibition with Dan Roach, ‘Mudlarks’, was a pleasant reminder that, in a zeitgeist still rather taken by formal hybridity in contemporary art, an unshowy refinement of a practice has its own benefits.
‘Mudlarks’ was the name applied to nineteenth century riverbank scavengers patrolling the intertidal flats of the Thames to unearth objects still carrying a use value. It is also suggestive of the magpie lark of Australian descent which builds nests from mud and twigs, a kind of constructive and functional alchemy not unlike the building site of a painting, itself constructed from stubbornly solid surfaces and painterly muck.
The vague, almost recognisable, single objects that dominate Sitar’s paintings either hover in front of surface washes of milky and muted colour or emerge x-ray-like from the quiet ground of the pictures. So, in ‘Under the Skin’, a horizontal twig shape is sharply foregrounded on a background of cool blue-white; whereas ‘Red Velvet In Thin Air’ seems to gather a cloudy orange-pink block of haze from the warm but pale ground of the painting.
Enigmatic but intimate, keening towards the mimetic and an elevation of the fragmentary, it is impossible to gauge the scale of the suggested objects; they could be delicately microscopic or as substantial as handleable human artefacts and everyday objects. Rarely do they radiate the aggression of the monumental or the sizeable clutter of a natural landscape.
A mnemonic woolliness hovers around them; they feel like the restatement of objects previously forgotten or abandoned, but, as Richard Davey observes in the exhibition catalogue, ones fleetingly sighted in the blurred boundary of peripheral vision.
Davey notes that ‘we exist in the ‘here’ – bounded bodies interlocked with time and place, unable to escape the ever-unfolding present of ‘now’’ whilst simultaneously acknowledging that ‘Our memory is a palimpsest, where fragments from times past and the dreams of our unformed future collide with the present moment…. Into a familiar picture of reality in the mind’.1
Observations which emphasise a paradoxical truth: although we can never ‘escape the ever-unfolding present of ‘now’’, we never really live, fully, in the ‘now’; our minds being formed from fragmentary snippets of past experiences and dreams interlocking with new sensations to allow us to construct our picture of reality.
This introduces significant elements often foregrounded within contemporary painterly practice, Sitar’s included. The thematics of duration and flow.
Duration and flow have been resurrected time and again within critical discourse; the fertile lineage of Bergson via Deleuze and a detour through the photographic and its digital offspring.
Organically, paintings carry the potential of being an ontological flattening into a single object-space of the spatial gameplay evidenced in previous historical precedents. This may suggest a mere expansion of the possibilities inherent in an investigation of ‘the painterly’.
But it is important to remember the degree to which painting as a technology, as much as painting as a conceptualising discipline, has always simultaneously absorbed and colonised parallel media.
If duration and flow are the DNA of twitchy digital pixels and contemporary moving images, they are also, in parallel, discretely hidden and quietly resonate within contemporary painterly practice.
That is why it is impossible to extricate a single temporal pace from this admixture of maternal referents within many contemporary paintings. Sitar’s paintings graphically state this sense of layered, contrary fluid perceptual shifts, discretely acknowledging the impurity of painting as a comfortably static and definable practice.
Further, in abstraction the interest moves from the mechanism of perception to the work of paint beginning to think at the level of expressive matter. Sitar plays with this, suggestively concerned both with the mechanisms of perception and with painting as a 'memorial' to painting as a practice.
This is very different than the tired constraining stricture of perpetually restaging 'the death of painting' as the paintings here act as a network of becomings and stagnations. Stray matter congealing into the visually apprehendable overlayed with its obverse, a flow of creeping entropy and deterioration.
This balance of contradictions make 'Casket' and its bleached out sugary tones efficiently seductive and needlingly off-putting at one and the same time. Like an overexposed printed photo of a Wayne Thiebaud cake painting.
As spectres of material presence, the almost-images pictured in Sitar’s works maintain a subtle discordancy between solidity and visual slippage. The minds’ eye sweeps around them in a predatory circling of the isolated object-events which act as enigmatic and unstable visual bait. The implied objects are haunted by alternative objects; other material possibilities occupying the same space at the same time.
Importantly, here images are not just traps for the eye but suggestive pivots towards other possible images.
The liminal imaginal spaces of these paintings are often almost interchangeable and, experiencing a grouping of this work, it is interesting to consider the possibility that they actually function as an ongoing serial production of a single work. One in which absence acts as a binding factor.
Afterall, on constructing a resemblance, the thing referred to is generally removed. The operations of this work may usefully be viewed as cojoined absences revelling in the obstinate muteness of things.
1. From ‘Kaleidoscopes of Atomic Shards’ by Richard Davey, an introductory essay to the catalogue ‘Mudlarks: Rebecca Sitar and Dan Roach’, published by University of Worcester, School of Art, 2021
(ISBN:10:9780903607360 and 13:978-0-903607-36-0)