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The Knowledge of Opposites is One 
The Artist's House Tel Aviv 2.22-3.17 2018 
Opening & Gallery Talks

Apprehending Paradox: The Knowledge of Opposites Is One 

Rachel Verliebter

In her exhibition “The Knowledge of Opposites is One”[1], the painter Chani Cohen Zada explores the improvement of moral qualities by apprehending the flaws that haven’t yet been mended. Her figurative-realistic works express an ongoing search for painting techniques that convey the deep connection between spiritual growth and physical matter. In a kind of visual Beit Midrash (“House of Learning”) assembling symbols and childhood memories, her images are influenced by ideas that originate from rabbinic homilies, biblical exegesis, Jewish philosophy, Chassidism, Kabbalah and “cognitive thinking”- conscious self-work known as the “Yemima method”.[2] Inspired by  cognitive thinking, her works create a vessel to contemplate the poetics of everyday life. At the center of her work are everyday experiences as they occur in real life. Household objects populate the allegorical scenes in which abstract cognitive thinking and kabbalistic motifs are transformed into visual signs. In this domestic mystery ordinary objects that belong to family life symbolize spiritual ideas. Material creation lends expression to the study of cognitive thinking that has shaped the artist’s personality. Matter captures spirit - the abstract idea is made corporeal.

     The painting The Place (2016) portrays the key concepts of “the inner child” and “the mature student” according to the Yemima method: A little girl’s crown lies on the rocking chair, as the background reveals a purple dress that the artist wore to her son’s wedding. The chair symbolizes the alignement between two cooperating forces: The girl and the mature woman are included in the mother figure. The mature woman builds a place that connects her to the higher place[3] that created her and contains the child within her. Out of insecurity, this childlike side tends to take control over the artist’s personality. It is from her surroundings that the beloved and desired princess, represented by the sparkling crown, gets her validation. However the urge for external validation is accompanied by both the anxiety that the courting might stop and the demand that the surroundings keep supplying it. As opposed to the illusory crown, the dress points to a different kind of femininity; that of the mature woman who is secure about her place and lets go of self-centeredness in order give her little son, who used to be attached to her, to another woman that she barely knows. At this point the woman is required to be the place by herself, containing other people’s pain, nurturing them with love, respect and security – giving them a place. For this purpose the rocking chair allows her to both move and rest in the heart of the storm. Thus the place represents the paradox of stability and instability at once, like an axis around which all the psychological forces concentrate: from the bottom of the wooden box through the crown, the chair, the dress up to the hanger. This cooperation between the material signifier and its spiritual signified is reflected by the purple color of the dress, as the Hebrew word sagol echoes the virtue (seguliut) that lies in teamwork (segel) and its capacity (messugalut).

     On a similar note, the painting As Yet Thou Exaltest Thyself (2017), depicts fossils and pebbles against the background of a purple dress. The title is taken from Moses’ words to Pharaoh whose hardened heart refuses to do the right thing: “As yet exaltest thou thyself against my people, that thou wilt not let them go?”[4] The image of the fossils refers to the hardened heart as an expression of a burden from the past weighing heavily on the artist. This callous state generates negative thought cycles that prevent her from opening up to another state of being. The pebbles, whose shape results from the encounter between water and hard matter, point to the interaction between the aquatic, soft and transformative element and the stone. This recurrent motif that also features in the works Yoga (2013) and The Waters Wear Away The Stones (2013) corresponds with the Midrash on Rabbi Akiva: “How did Rabbi Akiva start out? They said: he was forty years old and had never studied anything. Once he stood at a well. He said, "Who engraved this stone?" They told him, "[It was] the water, which drips upon it every day." And they said to him, "Akiva, are you not familiar [with the verse,] 'As the waters wear away the stones'?"
On the spot, Rabbi Akiva made the following deduction: If something soft [like water] could chisel its way through something hard [like stone], then surely the words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, can penetrate my heart, which is flesh and blood!" Immediately, he returned to studying Torah.”[5] The image of softness that is chiseling hardness expresses the hope for change: Like pebbles, hard spots in the human soul such as pride, jealousy, anger and sadness soften their shape when they are met by the supernal waters, which are compared to the nourishing Torah. In the painting’s composition the crown serves as a symbol of the little girl who walks on this weight of emotions that drag us down instead of lifting us up. These feelings are reflected by the dark shadows hovering over the dress. Its sleeve reveals a copy of the classic of Jewish ethical literature “Mesillat Yesharim” that was written by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and expounds on the correction of moral qualities as a way of getting closer to God. By means of a reversed word play the book’s title “Mesillat Yesharim” (Path of the Upright) alludes to the mending of the condition hinted at in the aforementioned painting’s title “Be’odekh Mistolelet” (literally = you still set yourself against). Like a prayer, the work connects the place that seems most remote from God with the Divine itself, thereby hinting at a wonder that occurs in the depths of consciousness against all worldly logic. The painting seems to imply that studying the book and cognitive thinking allows one to break free from repetitive thought patterns.

     Interiority is also the subject matter of the work If Thou Doest Well, Shall It Not Be Lifted Up? (2017), visualizing the dialogue that took place between God and Cain before he killed his brother. The question that God addresses to Cain “Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?”[6] is followed by the verse that served as inspiration for the title of this painting: “If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up? and if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it.”[7] The painting features a chair that is floating amidst a clouded sky as if it was carrying an invisible presence, hinting at the attributes that transcend the restrained spectrum of reality whose many layers we cannot actually see. A prayer shawl is thrown on the chair that represents Cain’s inner space. Into this narrative of the fall of man’s interiority, Chani Cohen Zada weaves the priestly blessing that calls on the divine face to illuminate and carry man’s fallen face: “The LORD bless thee, and keep thee; The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”[8] The place that the artist builds inside her bears the hard feelings of the face after its fall. In the same vein, the Hebrew expression set appearing in the painting’s title (literally “if you bear well”) also denotes leprosy, which was considered to be a spiritual disease of estrangement from God signaling to man to reengage in the relationship with his Creator. The connection to God gives the blessing and the strength to bear the inner child, which is symbolized by the crown adorning the chair. This crown represents the attainment of Da’at, the kabbalistic sefirah that stands for the hidden knowledge which is beyond grasp. It is the light surrounding all the worlds and it becomes accessible to us through the inner child that opens our awareness to the intangible layers of existence.

     The same inner child reappears in the work Lost (2016), which offers an interpretation of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s tale “The lost princess” about the quest for the lost soul. The painting depicts a bookshelf displaying a Pentateuch and the Song of Songs. The Scriptures are flanked by the artist’s notebooks, a sketch pad, brushes and pens. The crown that is floating above the Yemima method notebooks suggests a lack of awareness. Despite its presence, awareness must be developed through study. In the artist’s visual reading of the allegory, the princess is the inner child that we ought to know in order to become acquainted with the princess – our very soul.

     The painting Firmament (2017) presents a self-portrait of the artist looking “there” at the sky (the artist relates to Hebrew word for firmament shamayim as plural of sham = there). The firmament is sprinkled with biblical verses that serve as a background for the scene: “Look forth from Thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Thy people Israel.”[9] The artist’s gaze seeks the throne of glory hanging in the sky, yet she is unable to establish a communication with it. While here, she longs to be there. This wish to get away from the here and now is a source of frustration since the infinite there will always remain unreachable. Against the external “there” an internal “there” can be found that merges with the divine essence of man. As such, the painting expresses the longing to be in touch with heaven, which the artist considers to be the very purpose of the soul.

     This vision is expressed in the work entitled Upside Down (2016), which was inspired by the Midrash: “I saw a world upside down. The upper was below and the lower was above.”[10] The painting’s composition merges a porcelain bowl with a hollow ornate candlestick into a hexagonal shape reflecting a Star of David, whose six corners indicate the cardinal directions. The round frame emphasizes a shape that can exist in different angles on an axis of 360 degrees. As such, the Star of David is emblematic of a pattern that is not fixed. Its center conceals the inner point, the spiritual chore that remains physically unreachable to us. As opposed to a perception dictated by the senses, the artist offers a reversed look on existence: Rather than attributing high importance to matter, the point of gravity lies in the spirit.

     However, in Chani Cohen Zada’s works spirituality is not divorced from corporeality; rather they portray a unified existence that is entirely spiritual, although it may seem physical when perceived through the screen that clouds our deep vision of the knowledge wherein God dwells. This idea that God, the world and the soul are but one finds expression in the oil on board painting Alchemy (2017). The chair and the materiality of the wooden board show how ordinary life and the improvement of moral qualities are linked. The rocks and the shells hint the blockades that lead to fixed emotional states. The image of the oyster shell becoming mother of pearls alludes to the process whereby understanding is transformed into awareness and mends inner structures. The chair emerging from the wooden board is the place where the inner burden turns into a pearl. This growth out of something that preexists resembles the alchemical process whereby words become pearls.

     The chair in the role of psychic container is a central motif through which the artist explores the concept of motherhood. The paintings Childhood Rocking Chair (2013), Eyal in Childhood Rocking Chair (2013) and Things I Wish I Had Known When I Was Twenty (2013) are part of a series that was created in a time of crisis when part of her reproaches towards her mother figure and her own motherhood were projected onto the rocking chair, which she received as a gift from her mother when she was three years old. The chair functions as a transitional object[11], which appears at the stage when the infant starts to separate itself from its mother. Being a real object, yet at the same time a symbol for the absent mother, the chair is positioned in an intermediate space between inner and outer reality.[12] Within this potential space the artist feels that the chair does not support or contain her enough, as opposed to the “good-enough mother”[13] that she was expecting it to be. After a break, when she started painting the chair again in Self-Portrait in Childhood Rocking Chair (2013), it appears as a containing and comforting womb. From the chair that exists both outside and inside, her gaze is now directed at the viewer, thus indicating an intermediate stage between symbiotic dependence on the mother and individuation.

     In the last painting of the chair series Hesed, Gevurah, Tiferet (Lovingkindness, Might, Splendor) the same scene reappears from a brighter angle, as the artist accepts and understands that the chair as it is does its best: It gives her strength, as symbolized by the three kabbalistic sefirot Hesed, Gevurah, Tiferet. The faded grey that served as a background for the previous painting has been replaced by a grass green shade as a harbinger of inner renewal: A prayer shawl (tallit) and a woman’s scarf interweave to become one fabric on the chair. The prayer shawl hints at the holy marriage taking place between the sublime God and the Assembly of Israel dwelling in the here and now. The fruit of the upper and lower world’s love is reflected by the toddler sandals that are scattered to the foot of the chair. According to the artist’s take on the symbolism of the divine emanations, the union between the male sefirah of Chessed (lovingkindness) and the female Gevurah (might) gives birth to Tiferet (splendor), as a family that is created by the union of forces.

     In Chani Cohen Zada’s works the family represents a source of growth for the individual and a bountiful society. By means of images from everyday life, her art bears witness to a supernal light that is hidden in the depths of this world, dwelling in the home and shining through its objects. The images serve as a means to create new modes of awareness that actualize the concepts of cognitive thinking: The inner child that rules us, ongoing change, creating an internal place, choosing the Good and getting closer to our real essence by letting go of burdens. The artist’s visual language seeks to bring about inner transformation by encountering the flaw that has yet to be mended, as Nietzsche says: “One must still have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star”.[14]


[1] This expression appears for the first time in the writings of the medieval philosopher Rabbi Jospeh Albo (1380-1444), Book of Principles, article 2, chap.15: “Joy is attributed to God to indicate a condition opposed to that denoted by the attribution of sorrow. If sorrow, which expresses a defect, is ascribed to Him, surely joy, which is a noble attribute, should be ascribed to him, for the same kind of knowledge deals with the two opposites.”

Sefer Ha-‘Ikkarim: Book of Principles, critically edited and translated by Isaac Husik, vol. 2, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia: 1929, p.15; This concept was further developed by the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel 1512 - 1609) in his claim that one thing could be known by means of understanding its opposite: “Just as a good quality is apprehended through a genuine understanding of its opposite, the knowledge about all things derives from their opposed condition, as such the appearance of white can be inferred from the appearance of black, which is its very opposite, and therefore all opposites of one thing indicate that it can be known through its opposite. It is accepted that the knowledge of opposites is one, as is written in Tractate Pesachim 116a: ‘The Passover haggadah started in disgrace and ended in praise’, and why does it start in disgrace? Only because praise has no real acknowledgement but through its opposite. Therefore ultimate redemption cannot be explained without understanding destruction and exile, by means of which we come to know the good and the redemption that we are hoping for.” Maharal of Prague, Netzach Yisrael 1

[2] The Yemima method consists in the study of cognitive thinking as developed by Yemima Avital (1929-1999), a mystic, religious-kabbalistic spiritual teacher. Drawing from psychology and Kabbalah her teachings contrast the state of emotional omes (weight, heaviness, burden) with psychological shutdown, whereas the lack of thereof denotes drawing closer to our real essence, the good within us and joy. The study purports to provide tools for cognitive thinking to allow us to get closer to ourselves, however not through information or in Avital’s words – “knowledge”.

[3] The Hebrew appellation for place, Hamakom, denotes the Divine

[4] Exodus 9:17

[5] Avot of Rabbi Nathan [1], 6:2

[6] Genesis 4:6

[7] Genesis 4:7

[8] Numbers 6:24-26

[9] Deuteronomy 26:5

[10] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 10b

[11] The term transitional object was introduced to object relations psychology by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, referring to a real object that symbolizes the mother and allows the infant to maintain an imaginary attachment to her.

[12] D.W. Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena”, Playing and Reality, London: Tavistock  1971, pp.1-18

[13] Winnicott coined the term “good-enough mother” to describe the mother who enables her child to develop properly: “The good-enough mother starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure." Ibid.

[14] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue 5 (1885)

The Knowledge of the Opposited is One Catalog

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