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Chapter Nine of Marcia Brennan's Flowering Light: Kabbalistic Mysticism and the Art of Elliot R. Wolfson
Elliot R. Wolfson, Palimpsest , 2006. © Elliot R. Wolfson.

Flowering Light -- buy from Rice University Press. image --> If the visualization of angelic embodiment can be imagined as a creative process of “embody[ing] that which is not a body” and “giv[ing]form to the formless,” then both a reversed and a complementary version of these concepts can be seen in the painting Palimpsest (2006). Palimpsest so completely incorporates a diaphanous state of paradox that, on its surface, each painterly gesture represents an act of erasure, just as each erasure is itself a painterly gesture. To paraphrase another of Wolfson’s poetic formulations, the painting can be seen as an act that unfolds in seemingly opposite directions simultaneously, as it inscripts erasure while erasing inscription.

The term “palimpsest” derives from the Greek word palimpsēstos , which means “scraped again.” In practical usage, a palimpsest refers to a writing surface, such as a piece of paper, parchment, or canvas, that has been used multiple times, thereby displaying previous inscriptions that have subsequently been erased. Characterized by residual traces of “ghost” presences ( pentimenti ), a palimpsest can be imaginatively envisioned as a graveyard of living forms. To actively paint a palimpsest is to paint what has been unpainted, as the painting performs a disappearance of its own appearance, an apophatic saying of its own unsaying. As Wolfson has commented, Palimpsest “was one of the canvases with which I had to struggle, and to this day, I am not sure at all how the canvas received the paint in the way it did. But you are right that it is a form of apophatic writing.” Elliot R. Wolfson, in correspondence with the author, December 1, 2006. Thus to produce a palimpsest is to undertake a form of negative writing—or, in this instance, negative painting, an act that creates a presence by removing a presence. And with this unpainted painting, Palimpsest writes another chapter in the unwritten book of flowering light.

Palimpsest is a dark and complex painting, and its scraped facade may initially be difficult to look at. The subtle, polychrome surface displays a range of densely textured brushwork, with visible layers of dry brush scraping evident throughout the canvas. The surface of the painting thus exhibits the process of its own (un)making, of being painted, over-painted, and unpainted, as shades of darkness are emphatically asserted and subsequently removed. The result is a fluttering, “negative” white form that seems to hover aerially in the dark “positive” field of the canvas, a ground so deeply purple that it emerges through warm shades of blackened maroon. According to Wolfson, this painting was inspired by an idea in an ancient alchemical text, in particular, the magical image of “blood so red, it was black.” As we have seen, the practice of painting itself has been described as a form of alchemy, as symbolically marking a surface with oil in order to effect the transmogrification of form. Thus in the depths of its formal and symbolic structures, Palimpsest erases and encodes the underlying mystical principle of the coincidentia oppositorum .

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Source:  OpenStax, Flowering light: kabbalistic mysticism and the art of elliot r. wolfson. OpenStax CNX. Dec 09, 2008 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10611/1.1
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