Jennifer Packer: Painting as an Physical exercise in Tenderness

Barbara Merkley

Portraiture is everywhere at the second, in portray and images alike, and some of the finest of it has a precise aim: to make these who have been rendered invisible — on museum partitions, in general public culture, in political discourse — obvious. This drive to honor and dignify folks by representation comes at an moral value that generally goes unremarked, nevertheless: Does exposing your sitters to the viewer’s gaze switch them into matters to be looked at, emptied of their hidden complexities? Can you paint someone’s portrait while nevertheless insisting that vision are unable to — probably even really should not — capture all there is to know?

I never know any artist proper now who is carrying out as much to tackle these concerns as Jennifer Packer, whose retrospective is on see at the Whitney Museum of American Artwork. Although portray her topics, commonly those people closest to her, with a deep sensitivity, she makes it possible for them to keep just beyond our visible grasp. It is an act of protectiveness and care that is shifting and continue to leaves the viewer with a great deal to ponder.

The title of the exhibition, “The Eye Is Not Pleased With Viewing,” refers to a passage from Ecclesiastes that describes the human craving for understanding that can by no means be sated. It is a paradoxical but entirely apt entry position for this painter, whose operate is centered on eager observation, though regularly probing the limitations of representation.

The show, which originated at the Serpentine Gallery in London, provides 35 functions right here depicting buddies and acquaintances in domestic interiors bouquets of bouquets, some of which were painted to commemorate people who have died, usually Black victims of police violence and a handful of hardly ever found drawings. They date from 2011, the year just before Packer graduated from Yale’s M.F.A. software, to the present.

They include her greatest painting, “Blessed Are People Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!),” produced during the Covid lockdown in 2020. At around 10 feet by 14 ft of unstretched canvas tacked to the wall, it has existence that is both equally monumental and informal. The title refers, of study course, to Breonna Taylor, the 26-12 months-aged Black healthcare worker killed by law enforcement in her house in Louisville, Ky., in March 2020 — an event, alongside with the murder of George Floyd by a law enforcement officer in Minneapolis, that sparked Black Life Make any difference protests nationwide that Could.

The image, awash in acid yellow tones, is based mostly on pictures of Taylor’s apartment. Packer pays individual interest to the ordinary objects that occupied what need to have been a put of refuge. The artist tends to make you work to see her paintings, and they reward this sort of sustained wanting: Out of the mostly monochromatic surface area emerge a ghostly fly swatter, a box lover, a poster with an inspirational aphorism, internet pages from a Batman comedian, an iron, a wood-grained kitchen area cupboard, and additional. They seem in means that never normally make perception. Why is the chessboard next to the stove? What, if everything, are these objects sitting down on or hooked up to? Why are some scarcely delineated even though other folks finely rendered? The logic is that of a intellect seizing on inconsequential items in the system of coming to conditions with an too much to handle grief.

In the foreground, a shirtless man putting on blue basketball shorts sleeps on a tufted couch. As with significantly of the operate in the demonstrate, refined artwork-historical references accumulate and clash to convey complex moods. In this circumstance, the figure’s tilted-back again head evokes vulnerability and satisfaction (believe Girodet’s neoclassical portray “The Slumber of Endymion”), pathos (the severed heads of corpses painted by Géricault), and martyrdom (any number of Renaissance Pietas, or Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat”).

What you do not see in this canvas, even so, is Breonna Taylor herself.

Packer speaks of painting as a means of bearing witness to Black daily life. But bearing witness does not suggest, for this artist, serving up her sitters to the viewer’s hungry gaze. As if in defiance of the infinite films and pictures of folks who have been topic to condition-sanctioned and institutional violence that flood our social media streams, Packer permits Taylor a uncommon privilege: that of privacy.

The exact same is genuine of her flower however lifes, in which fragile blossoms and foliage surface to float in an indeterminate room. The artist refers to some of these as funerary bouquets — functions of commemoration that allow her, as she reported in a new job interview, “move as a result of her grief,” no matter whether of a certain individual or a generalized perception of loss. “Say Her Name” (2017) is a modern day-working day memento mori marking the death of Sandra Bland, the young civil rights activist, when in law enforcement custody in 2015 just after her arrest for a minimal visitors violation. Her death sparked renewed consideration to law enforcement violence from Black gals.

Packer methods her sitters with unfailing tenderness and generosity. Some of her subjects are familiar faces from the art environment: the curator Jessica Bell Brown seems in “Jess” (2018), the artists Eric N. Mack in “The Overall body Has Memory” (2018) and “Eric (II)” (2013), Tomashi Jackson in “Tomashi” (2016), and Jordan Casteel in “Jordan” (2014).

It is an endlessly intriguing paradox that, via a watchful analyze of gesture, Packer generates convincing representations of true folks even although her subjects normally disappear into their monochromatic environment, or are created tough to see fully in other techniques. Sketchy, even agitated contours hardly outline them. Paint — and with it, facial options and bodily definition — is scraped off with the palette knife as typically as it is laid on.

In Packer’s canvases, the line between drawing and painting is infrathin, and so it is gratifying to see together with the paintings a compact choice of will work on paper. Among them is “The Head Is Its Personal Place” (2020). Right here, traces determine the two figures even though simultaneously discomposing and merging them. A bent head drips febrile marks as if it’s melting off the page a leg appears to be bent one way, while a gray wash and the untouched white of the paper recommend that it is kneeling an additional way. Again we see the play between almost inchoate mark-building and spectacular specificity: An undefined face is rubbed into the area with charcoal, but its hand is picked out, plainly, with purple crayon.

It is as if the far more the artist appears to be like, the significantly less she is familiar with. But this admission of unknowing — a disarmingly humble assertion from an artist who verges on the virtuosic — is a recognition of her subjects’ complicated humanity that can in no way be contained by mere illustration.


Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Contented With Observing

By means of April 17, 2022, the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Avenue, Manhattan, (212) 570-3600 [email protected] People need to ebook tickets in progress people 12 years of age and more mature have to exhibit evidence they have received at the very least 1 dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

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