Whether it is upheld as an integral part of a religious belief system or simply acknowledged as myth by a more secular audience, what took place in the Garden of Eden continues to inform the way Western civilization has come to understand, represent, and feel about the body. Perhaps this is because it is in one aspect or another universally relatable: the introduction of corporeal experience, a fall from grace (either by mistake, transgression, or wisdom depending on how it is interpreted), and a heroic journey driven by eternal homesickness and a hope for redemption.
Because the story of the garden is so timeless, it is little wonder that artists—those who by definition are concerned with representing and contextualizing the human form—would find themselves incessantly revisiting one potential site of figural origin. Artists of faith or those who profess an affinity for spirituality seem especially drawn to such subject matter. Artists like Samuel Evensen.
As a former student of Brigham Young University and MFA graduate from the New York Academy of Art, Evensen has brought a fresh perspective to the myth in his installation, In the high noon of the heavenly garden. The exhibit, showcased for the month of July at Writ & Vision in downtown Provo, is composed of an overwhelming floor-to-ceiling mural which wraps around the entirety of the gallery space with fragmented excerpts of original poetry inspired by Genesis from Lucille Clifton, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Menashe, and others. In addition, Evensen has superimposed a series of small, oil-painted nudes onto the frieze itself, thoughtfully provoking a dialogue between style, media, and theme. It is a completely immersive experience, one that the artist himself describes as “visual opera.” The grandeur of the Gesamtkunstwerk aesthetic is an ambitious, but appropriate choice for such an iconic grand narrative.
Instead of portraying the creation, inhabitation, and expulsion from Eden in a series of isolated portraits, Evensen has deliberately chosen to depict the events of the Fall in one continuous combination of images. This allows the viewer to experience the creation and departure from Eden as a process, not an event. Considering the artist’s emphasis on progression, maturation, and development, this aesthetic choice is thus highly significant and is a consistent theme throughout the work. For example, instead of introducing man into the garden as a fully formed male, he has chosen to depict Adam as a newborn, drawn from a single crimson contour line, his umbilical cord stemming from the soil and imbued with the breath of life from a Heavenly Mother. The contrast to traditional imagery continues throughout the work: Eve partakes of the fruit as an adolescent girl, but invites Adam to do the same as a late teenager; both stand accountable before a pair of kneeling Gods as tree-like figures in the next scene having now progressed into their mid-20s. As they progress, more markings, outlining their figures, suggest the increased complexity that comes as a result of gaining knowledge. The extension of time adds a temporal dimension to the otherwise immediate consequences of the scriptural account. Evensen thus invites us to reconsider the choice to leave Eden as an extended process that reoccurs cyclically as a series of departures for the couple as well as their progeny.
Perhaps this is one reason why the constellation of nudes seems so at home despite a difference in style, media, and dimension. Evensen has painted with great sensitivity a diversity of bodies; each nude invites the viewer to consider how each of us—with our varying sexual orientations, ethnicities, sizes, etc.—fit within the context of the narrative. For some, this narrative can be highly problematic. For others, it makes perfect sense. However, what is so valuable about interacting with the oil nudes and the frieze is that it lends itself to a more sophisticated conversation that questions and confronts the way the narrative has influenced how we continue to understand the body.
In addition to expanding upon the journey of Adam and Eve, Evensen’s insightful representation of God should not be overlooked. While stylistically the artist’s approach is highly chromatic, sensory, and vibrant, his overall conception of Eden is earthy and agrarian. The frieze is read from right to left, not unlike its first form in the original Hebrew, and our introduction to deity is atypical from the work’s very beginning. In a deliberate allusion to Caillebotte’s “The Floor Scrapers,” Evensen presents the Gods—male and female—as divine gardeners. They kneel, bent down and intent on working the soil with their hands, tending to their work with great effort and care. Their figures can be found throughout the continuous narrative in poses that formerly may have been considered undignified, even sacrilegious: keeling, bending, bowing—always close to the Earth. In contrast to the initial simplicity of Adam’s lines, they are composed of layers and layers of pulsating pastel, almost vibrating with complexity.
Other art historical Easter eggs can be identified throughout the work; Giacometti’s “Walking Man” and Courbet’s “The Stone Breakers” are thoughtful homages to the common and heroic laborer. While some may see this as an overwrought or contrived attempt at making allusive connections to works of the past, it is clear that Evensen is doing much more than a clever tip of the hat. The artist tremendously enriches the message of the work by placing the borrowed figures back within their original context of this grand narrative, adding another layer of complexity and understanding for those who want to do a deep reading.
There is a reason that this narrative has been immortalized through artistic representation and literary parallels throughout the ages. While artists today continue to exhaust the potential of this story and its implications, there is nothing quite like Sam Evensen’s immersive contribution. His inclusion of contemporary poetry, the seemingly chaotic but ultimately immaculate attention to detail, and his rich understanding and confrontation of the narrative’s contemporary ramifications is worthy of praise and recognition.
“In the high noon of the heavenly garden,” work by Samuel Evensen, Writ & Vision gallery, Provo, through July 27.
Maddie graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in Music, BA in Interdisciplinary Humanities, and Minor in Art History in 2018. She has assisted in the curation of art and multimedia exhibitions throughout Utah–as a Curatorial Fellow at the BYU Museum of Art (2016-2018) and an independent curator (2013- Present).