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The Epiphany of the (In)visible: Texture and Epiphany

Module by: Marcia Brennan. E-mail the authorEdited By: Frederick Moody, Ben Allen

Summary: Chapter Two of Marcia Brennan's Flowering Light: Kabbalistic Mysticism and the Art of Elliot R. Wolfson.

Figure 1: Elliot R. Wolfson, Epiphany, 2008. © Elliot R. Wolfson.
Figure 1 (graphics1.jpg)

Flowering Light -- buy from Rice University Press. The highly textured surfaces of Wolfson’s canvases can be viewed imaginatively as complex fabrics whose interwoven threads form a nuanced language readable on multiple levels simultaneously. One way to approach this interpretive task is to view the paintings as a visual paradox, as diaphanous surfaces showcasing an epiphany of the (im)possible. Despite their differences in meaning, both terms—diaphanous and epiphany—share a common root, phainein, which means “to show.” Examining the terms more closely, it becomes evident that their significant distinctions lie in their prefixes, which designate the location of the appearance, or the site of the showing. While “epi” connotes a sense of proximity that lies on, at, or near the surface, “dia” suggests a fluid movement that extends through or across space, so that transparent outer textures reveal a delicate sense of veiled interiority. Significantly, the prefix dia also connotes the principle of relationship, as in the words dia-lectic and dia-gnosis, which respectively convey the ideas of conversing with and knowing through.

These themes are vividly expressed in Wolfson’s painting Epiphany (2008), an abstract canvas that evokes a conflagration of flowers or a diaphanous bouquet of flames. In this work, radiant surges of yellow, red, pink, orange, and white are chromatically tempered by wisps of green, while the image is further deepened and heightened by concentrated patches of blue. Through this play of overlighting colors and underlying forms, Epiphany simultaneously evokes and inverts the realms of above and below, of illuminated depths and dynamic surfaces. The title expresses a corresponding sense of epiphany, a transient moment when illumination surges forth in flashes and waves, as a surfacing to consciousness becomes visibly expressed on the surface of the canvas.

Figure 2: Elliot R. Wolfson, Texture #2, 2005. © Elliot R. Wolfson.
Figure 2 (graphics2.jpg)

While Epiphany expresses these themes in distinctive pictorial terms, Wolfson’s painting Texture #2 (2005) also conjoins and collapses layers of opacity and transparency, surface and depth. Painted in a warm spectral palette, Texture #2 displays a mosaic-like pattern of red, orange, and yellow tones that are sparsely intermixed with deep patches of violet. In this abstract canvas, blocky clusters of orange brushstrokes appear to melt and glow like embers in an open hearth. If these combustible energies were exponentially multiplied and dramatically released, the visual effect might resemble the incinerated swirls that form Conflagration (2007), the volatile image that now hangs so quietly in a private home.

Gazing into the fictive flames of Texture #2, the impastoed edges of brushstrokes appear as the broken characters of an unwritten language, an unscripted script that forms a luminous veil. The blocky golden brushstrokes along the painting’s perimeter resemble a flickering frame that loosely encircles the painting’s radiant inner reddish core; in so doing, this open halo evokes the abstract presence of an angel in a Byzantine fresco or mosaic. If viewers were to imagine such a luminous figure, then consciously release the image from their minds, they would be holding onto the angel while simultaneously letting it go. Etheric traces of spiraling light could then imaginatively appear as the invisible equivalent of the aniconic icon.

Just as both angels and textures share a structurally homologous position as intermediary presences, Texture #2 transposes what is visibly shown at or on its surface—the opaque revelation of an epiphanic display—with what is seen when gazing through the shimmering, diaphanous veils that form the flickering field of the painting.1

“oral text”
with my tongue i write
what speech could not relate
in causal chain skipping beat
tarnished by time that rusts
oxidation of trust
breathing to speak
through mask
disfigured
in moon of fear
this dragon year
that strangles neck
and buttons eye
against wind that winds
around pole
dismembered
in writing of tongue
dry of ink
black on white
creation rewrite
even in sabbath dawn
envisioning chariot wheel
spinning through space
in motion restrained
forgotten pleasure / remembered pain
always differently the same

Alternating patterns of emergence and recession, revelation and concealment, are expressed on the symbolic surfaces of “oral text,”2 Epiphany, and Texture #2 through language that appears “always differently the same.” Related ideas can also be found in the scholarship on mysticism that discusses the varied texture (arigah) of the showing (phainein) of the secret and its corresponding concealment. Threading through this multifaceted play of presences and absences, abstractions and figurations, is the philosophical structure of the coincidentia oppositorum, or the coincidence of opposites. As Michael Sells has observed, not only is this formulation a characteristic feature of mystical discourses, but one of its most powerful expressions takes the form of apophasis and kataphasis, or the “mystical languages of unsaying.”3 When addressing the radical play of affirmation and negation in kabbalistic gnosis, Wolfson has emphasized the central role of the image “as the coincidentia oppositorum that bridges transcendence and immanence, apophasis and kataphasis, invisibility and visibility, and thereby facilitates the epiphany of incarnational forms.”4 When these concepts are translated into visual terms, the apophatic can be seen as corresponding to the receding realm of dissolving forms, while the kataphatic is manifested as the texture of visible appearances. The epiphanic and the diaphanous can also be seen as related aspects of these mutually intertwined concepts, as aestheticized expressions of the saying and unsaying that reciprocally appear and disappear as the forms between forms.

Indeed, such notions of the disclosure of the undisclosable represent a trope within the modern study of the history of religions. The prominent philosopher and historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, once observed that the public revelation of esoteric information by scholars of religion has led to “a period that I would be tempted to call phanic. We display in broad daylight texts, ideas, beliefs, rites, etc., which normally should have remained hidden, and access to them reserved only to initiates.”5 Similarly, in the important essay, “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism,” the distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, discusses the ways in which the incomprehensible nature of sacred communication can become comprehensible when approached through a mediating text/ure. As Scholem has observed, “The creative force thus concentrated in the name of God, which is the essential word that God sends forth from Himself, is far greater than any human expression, than any creaturely word can grasp. It is never exhausted by the finite, human word. It represents an absolute which, resting in itself—one might as well say: self- moved—sends its rays through everything that seeks expression and form in all worlds and through all languages. Thus, the Torah is a texture (Hebrew: arigah) fashioned out of the names of God and, as the earliest Spanish Kabbalists already put it, out of the great, absolute name of God, which is the final signature of all things.” Commenting further on the metaphorical textures of written and oral texts, Scholem continued: “As Joseph Gikatilla has set forth in great detail, in the Torah the living texture constructed out of the tetragrammaton is seen as an infinitely subtle braiding of the permutations and combinations of its consonants; these in turn were subjected to more such process of combination, and so on ad infinitum, until they finally appear to us in the form of the Hebrew sentences of the Torah.”6

Thus, as both Eliade and Scholem observe, in mystical traditions language itself is seen as being both epiphanic and diaphanous, as words and images form mediating layers whose textured surfaces can symbolically enable the seeing of the unseen. In turn, Wolfson’s artworks can be seen as engaging a similar set of themes through words and images that form an interwoven fabric of concealed disclosures and diaphanous openings. However, it should also be emphasized that these concepts remain suggestively metaphorical rather than being literal or intentional. When asked about these potential thematic connections, Wolfson responded, “I did not have a conscious thought of the kabbalistic concept of texture (arigah) when I painted the painting Texture, but if your mind’s eye sees some connection, I would have no difficulty following that line of interpretation.”7 By remaining open possibilities rather than firmly fixed associations, artistic meanings remain elusive and fragmentary, fluid and subtle, like embers that flicker and fade so that their light can express “what speech could not relate / in causal chain skipping beat.”

Footnotes

  1. As Jeff Kripal has pointed out, these concepts come very close to what Eliade meant by a hierophany. Derived from the Greek prefix hieros, which denotes the sacred or holy, and phainein, a hierophany is literally a showing of the sacred. See Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harvest Books, 1968), p. 11; and Bryan S. Rennie, Reconstructing Eliade: Making Sense of Religion (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996).
  2. “oral text” appears in Pathwings, p. 81.
  3. See Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), esp. pp. 1-13.
  4. Wolfson, “Imago Templi,” p. 124.
  5. Mircea Eliade, Journal III, 1970-78, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 108-09; quoted in Steven M. Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 33. It should be noted that Corbin himself employed the terms “transparent” and “diaphanous” in his discussion of the showing of the secret, as expressed through the mystical transparency of symbols. In his study of Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, Corbin noted “the simultaneity of the spiritual sense and the literal sense, of the exoteric (zahir) and the esoteric (batin). The situation is, in fact: either this simultaneity is not noticed by the profane, in which case the natural sense forms a protective wall against any violation of the sanctuary; or else it is known to the spiritual adept, but in this knowledge itself a transmutation of the natural sense occurs, the covering becomes transparent, diaphanous.” Corbin is quoted in Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion, p. 95.
  6. Gershom Scholem, “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism,” The Messianic Idea in Judaism, and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), pp. 293-94.
  7. Elliot R. Wolfson, in correspondence with the author, July 26, 2008.

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