To Touch the Light: The Paintings of Jordan Wolfson

By Meir Appelfeld,     June 2001

In the past two years Jordan Wolfson has been painting in a new studio flooded with the light of Nataf, a small town in the mountains on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  The wondrous view of an expansive sky above the Judean Hills presses upon the windows of the studio, and this combination of light and earth carries significant meaning for his work.

I would like to define the subject matter of Wolfson’s paintings. Wolfson deals with landscapes, interiors and figures. But in order to truly grasp the subject matter of his paintings we must go beyond the description of genre and try to define that which is difficult to define. In other words, what does the language of Wolfson’s painting convey to us? The first thing that we notice in Wolfson’s work is the sensuality of the paint.  This sensuality is revealed in the way the paint is handled as well as in its colorful tonality. Wolfson creates an envelope that one can almost touch, and out of this envelope the painting arises. There are some that will interpret his way of painting, and the resulting texture, as the measure of the painting’s sensuality. But the sensuality in Wolfson’s paintings cannot be evaluated in these terms alone. The texture of the paint is a by-product of Wolfson’s search; a meaningful dialogue between the sense of touch, as evidenced in his mark making, and a depiction of light.

A useful means of clarifying this dialogue is to observe the difference between the paintings of Rembrandt and Vermeer. The contrast between Rembrandt and Vermeer is profound.  This contrast exists not only in the sphere of pictorial language but in the field of the narrative as well. As a generalization, the paintings of Vermeer deal with the depiction of the falling of light. The severe geometric structure of Vermeer’s spaces is exposed and the women that occupy the paintings move within this rigid framework. The palette is cool in light of Vermeer’s relatively full use of blue. In comparison, Rembrandt deals not only with the falling of light on his subjects but also with the lights shining through them. Space is his painting has a cave-like effect where one has the feeling of an encircling dome above his figures. In Vermeer’s painting the brushwork is hidden. The distance between the subject of the painting (usually a young woman) and the viewer’s eye is considerable, rendering the space of the depicted room to be part of the subject matter. In Vermeer’s paintings we see an attempt towards objectivity, describing things as they are. Yet within Vermeer’s seeming realism lies a secret that is hard to unravel. In juxtaposition to Vermeer, Rembrandt makes the paint handling part of his subject matter, giving the texture of his paintings an independent life of its own. His inclination is to draw his figures close, almost to the point where the viewer can touch them. The large format of hi paintings, as a rule larger than the format of Vermeer’s, contributes to this feeling of closeness. The warm light in Rembrandt’s paintings, as well as the expressive brushwork, reveal an empathic and warm connection with the people he depicts, a relation which both reveres and reveals the subject’s a human weaknesses and deep humanity.

What is the connection between this discussion of Rembrandt and Vermeer and the paintings of Wolfson? On the face of it, Wolfson is closer to Rembrandt in the expressive way be handles the paint, and the manner in which the geometric structure is hidden. But Wolfson also deals with the depiction of light; his interiors are involved with the translation of daylight into tonality. Further, Wolfson’s use of blue is central to his realization of the sensation of this light.  In his striking painting, “Interior with Woman and Window”, the sensuality of the paint, the expressive brushstrokes and the warm palette, seduces the viewer and draws him in, while on the other hand, the distance between the viewer and the woman is quite considerable. The woman is the subject of the painting, but that subject is revealed through the depiction of light falling on her body and not through a detailed rendering of her face. It is a painting that invites us to closely observe a woman who, with her body, delineates the corner of the room. Simultaneously, the painting distances the viewer from the woman by exposing the structure of the room, and emphasizing the light on the wall and the floor as a competing subject. There is a dialogue between warm and cool in Wolfson’s painting—between the desire to touch and feel the image that is revealed through the canvas, and the distancing which arises from the will to faithfully depict precise tones in the translation of light. This dialogue creates an inner conflict, a conflict between the “sensual”, the tactile, the warm, that which draws close, and the “spiritual”, the cool and that which distances. The synthesis of this conflict is found in the paintings of Wolfson, the subject is crystallized and revealed. Wolfson’s paintings are a meaningful embodiment of the struggle to touch the light.