ART

Jennifer Packer’s (Almost) All-Seeing Eye

In her powerful solo show at the Whitney, the painter peers beyond the surface of grief

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For artists who aren’t straight, white, or male, identity politics are nearly inescapable. The situation is even trickier for figurative painters, and dramatically so for Black artists. Critics and dealers describe paintings by people of color as though conversing with an invisible assumption that their work inevitably deals with bigotry, from the bright, quotidian scenes of young Jordan Casteel to the ranging tableaux of maestro Kerry James Marshall. Both artists do foster racially aware understandings of their practices, and one could argue that art-making itself is inherently political—but this hackneyed formulation is double-edged. White figurative painters can afford to stand apart from oppression; no one looks at new portraits by David Hockney and asks how his sitters exist in relation to police abuse, the carceral state, or the long consequences of the Atlantic slave trade.

Thirty-seven-year-old Jennifer Packer does many things in her paintings and charcoal drawings, which range in size from minuscule to mammoth, including responding to racial violence’s aftermath. Her work dashes daily existence with tragedy. Several of the pieces in The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing, Packer’s solo exhibition at the Whitney, make us aware that mourning and banal routine aren’t so different—woven into the devastation of loss is the fact that life goes on. In one early diptych, the James Baldwin–citing Fire Next Time (2012), a form in a puffy coat slumps at a table, with fans, a chair, and paintings-within-the-painting peeking from the sunset palette. What exhausts this huddled figure? Are we observing a person shaken by institutionalized discrimination, or an artist sucked dry by creative labor? Both might be true, but we’re never allowed a clear interpretation, though what could be a stroller’s wheels on the bottom edge suggest why the fire will have to wait.

Packer’s practice blurs expectations of realism not just because she wants to mess with the mysteries of perception but also to suggest humanity’s inherent intricacy. Her works on canvas and paper merge figures and abstraction seamlessly, the friends she depicts, including Casteel and painter Eric N. Mack, slipping into blurry lines and long drips. She jams in not only ocular surprises but also sundry objects, though no matter how much is going on in her pictures, we’re never able to ignore the fullness of her subjects’ humanity.

Each part of the surface becomes a chance to explore personhood, geometry, and color. The portraits Transfiguration (He’s No Saint) (2017) and Jess (2018) can make us wonder whether we’re looking at a body or a saturated neon rectangle, a torso or an experiment in texturing white paint. The mellow yellow Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!) (2020) takes inspiration from police photographs of Breonna Taylor’s home after she was murdered. Household objects and tacked-up illustrations of Batman cramp the depthless background, the artist forefronting a figure on a couch who looks nothing like Breonna. We might interpret this person as asleep, yet their hands are twisted in rigor mortis. Packer’s content echoes her liminal style, leaving viewers unsure if we’re seeing someone dead or alive. She puts us face-to-face with our comprehension’s limits, how our vantage for judging art might be as unstable as experience itself.

Through wall text, the Whitney show connects Packer to Renaissance predecessor Titian, and, because she uses a color informed by one of his canvases, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88). Some labels imply that Packer’s paintings are about Blackness, while others acknowledge the importance of her haunting, varied charcoals. The rubbed-out lines in Untitled (2014) feel almost vascular, while in Swim (2011), a cartoonish figure bathes as a rope drifts across the paper, pointing toward both recreation and a tool long used to murder African Americans. The tiny 10-by-8-inch Exile of the Body (2018) presents us with an abstract clot of blue oil; eventually, the painting’s title helps us realize that we’re looking at an empty bed. 

Packer’s canvases can recall the fleshy legs of a Michelangelo fresco, or the unsure brutality of a Caravaggio. Sometimes these digestions of art history feel more provocative than reverent, reminiscent of Kehinde Wiley’s stark juxtapositions of old with new. Packer’s style is far more tactile and various than Wiley’s, and, ironically, this can make her echoes feel like cribbing rather than self-aware commentary,  particularly when they involve more modern predecessors. Her contorted appendages and flat picture planes evoke Leon Golub (at times too strongly), while her portraits’ interplay of intimacy and withholding call up Alice Neel. These allusions work best when they torque their source. Carolina (2011) mirrors Neel’s 1970 painting of Andy Warhol’s chest scars after he was shot. Packer’s subject, however, is an unnamed Black person in a cluttered space, prompting the question of how damaged tissue might be understood differently on the body of a victim who is neither famous nor white. The effect is eloquent, and more layered than derivative or scholarly.

Packer’s flower paintings link her to the past in a way that’s both obvious and misunderstood. In interviews, she describes them as contemporary works of mourning, while simultaneously paying tribute to Henri Fantin-Latour, a 19th-century Frenchman whose pictures, like Packer’s, portray flowers or artists in his milieu. While the lineage is palpable, another reference in Packer’s work predates the celebrated realist. Because they were barred from using nude models, women during the European Renaissance painted blossoms. Packer’s blooms carry on the tradition—Flemish pioneer Clara Peeters and Dutch artist Margaretha Haverman, both inspired female painters of flowers, preceded Latour by two centuries.

Packer takes this inheritance in a powerful new direction. Her botanical scenes don’t feel like still lifes but action paintings, using expressionist flourish to convey an explosion of energy. The highlight, Say Her Name (2017), bursts from the canvas as though an inner force has splashed paint from the bouquet’s center to its surface. Dedicated to Sandra Bland, who died mysteriously in police custody, the painting should be understood for its grief and indignation. Yet it also feels like an assertion of feminine eroticism, as do a number of her works—naked Black bodies touch, bare themselves, recline in the nude. A curled leaf in the lower right corner of Say Her Name resembles a stamen, one of the reproductive features of a plant. Even the painting’s title, removed from our contemporary context of sloganeering, reads like a command to acknowledge a woman’s erotic power.

Packer can be Black or female, the critical and curatorial discussion of her art implies—but not both. In some flower paintings, petals are hidden as though behind a scrim, or their own leaves. Just as she preserves the enigma of her sitters, Packer lets herself hide in her work. Self-protective but never timid, her practice shrugs off facile identities. Showing grief and desire, life and death as both contradictory and coexisting, her visionary style gives us a vividly ambiguous picture of human beings.  ❖

Highlights