A Key to the Garden
by Ilan Stavans

In a famous parable included in the Talmud, four sages enter the pardes: the first one dies; the second loses his mind; the third is never heard from again. Only the fourth one, Rabbi Akiva, comes out, healthy and sane. In Hebrew the term pardes means "garden." But the rabbinical garden isn't a domesticated site reserved for public repose and contemplation. Instead, it is a mythical locale, fabulous and forbidden, a Garden of Eden where only the initiated are allowed a peek.

Moico Yaker has been obsessed with the image of the garden ever since he began to draw. The motif appears everywhere in his oeuvre as a landscape of human excess. The canvases by Yaker I've admired over the years are filled with disoriented conquistadors, mulattos, ladinos, and Orthodox Jews dancing to a syncopated rhythm of their erotic appetite. They are the dwellers of a New World that is new only because the Old World is exhausted. Their pardes is a labyrtinth of crisscrossed identities.

The universe to which Yaker invites us is intellectually blazed. He is the type of painter who maintains an overt dialogue with the tradition he emerges from. He follows the path, in my view at least, of Brazil's Jewish master, Lasar Segall, whose combination of German Expressionism and Brazilian Modernism produced an intensely spiritual hybrid of images, part European, part Afro-American. I often thought of Segall as a loner in an alien land, an artist without successors. When I first came across Yaker's exuberant art, I realized I had found another south-of-the-border loner of astonishing talent for whom his Jewishnesss is a key to the garden.

Biblical depictions abound in his oeuvre, but they come to us through a kaleidoscope that zigzags references to the Renaissance as well as to nineteenth-century naturalism. His latest exhibit, "Susana and the Elders," proves the point. Inspired by a story in the apocryphal Book of Daniel, it is about a group of mature men infatuated with a ravishing woman, whom they spy as she takes a bath. She sexually arouses them. They attempt to seduce her, but she rejects them. This annoys them. Furious as they are, they accuse her in public of adultery. It is left to the Prophet Daniel, the Sherlock Holmes of the plot, to find out the truth. He proves that the elders, and not Susana, are guilty of sin.

Yaker isn't interested in the quest for justice in the tale. For him, Susana's adventure is about voyeurism. "Susana and the Elders" is a favorite scene in the work of Rembrandt, Tintoretto, and Titian: Aphrodite incarnate, whose powers transform man into beast. Yaker pays homage to this scene, but tangentially. In his seven magisterial pieces (one of them a sum of twelve parts), Susana becomes a ghost. Her sensuality is ubiquitous. It reaches us through the veil of the ornamented flora, and through the intensity of its color. It might also be found in the recurrence of symbols of fertility: a petiole that insinuates a vagina, a prodigious testicle... But Susana, where is she? She is nowhere to be found. Yaker introduces her as an absence. Simultaneously, it is the audience that has become the Elders: we desperately look for her, we spy on her, we dream of her. While she leisurely takes her bath, we find ourselves overwhelmed by a sudden sexual urge.

It is desire that cannot but generate a sense of discomfort. We have been forced into the pardes, the forbidden Garden of Eden. Will we be able to depart from it with our sanity intact?