Jennifer Packer

Jennifer Packer on her changing approaches to painting

Jennifer Packer, Joyce V, 2012, oil on canvas, 15 x 16".

Jennifer Packer has most often painted the people who surround her, rendering the figures of close friends and classmates from observation as they kick back into couches and armchairs, nestled inside New York apartments and grad-school studios. Transmuted by textured washes and brilliant hues, their bodies and clothing blend into their plush environs, becoming one with the scene and most truly at home. The New York–based artist also applies a soft touch to her recent paintings of flower bouquets, each a sprightly study of color and form that serves as a requiem to the fleeting and fragile beauty of life. “The Eye is Not Satisfied with Seeing,” which opened at London’s Serpentine Gallery on December 5 and runs through next March, surveys Packer’s painting and drawing practice over the past decade through nearly thirty works. Below, the artist casts an eye on the contours of her own career and the people and places that have shaped it.

I SORT OF LANDED in the lap of painting. Everything seemed to happen in a serendipitous way. Which is not to say that it has been easy—but the dominoes fell where they needed to fall. One of my high school teachers told me to apply to the Tyler School of Art, so I did and got in. Stanley Whitney was my painting professor and drove me crazy. But he was like, Go to Rome, so I went to Rome. It was a completely disorienting place for a young Black woman. Painting was the only thing making me feel grounded, so I clung to it. Everyone there had been painting for ten years; they were really good, and I was, frankly, really bad. But I returned to the states feeling like, Yeah, I just made some terrible paintings, but I think I need to keep doing this.

I hated a lot of the paintings I’d made, pretty immediately, for many years. I think that dissatisfaction came in part from the culture of grad school, where nothing you do ever feels sufficient. In my last year at Yale, I was making lots of small paintings of friends who’d stop by my studio around 2 a.m.—loose, poorly gessoed things on the side of what I thought was my more “serious” work. I saw them as a sort of respite, a way to get away from the conceptual heavy lifting that my larger paintings were supposed to be working through. What did people say? Oh—that I had been busy “mining” family history. And trying to parse questions about who the fuck I thought I was.

Jennifer Packer, Untitled, 2016, oil on canvas, 24 x 24".

I think young BIPOC artists are often expected to share intimate details from their lives. There’s this obsession with the interiority of the Black artist. But it’s not like I’m going to walk into a Laura Owens show and read anything in the press release about her grandmother. And I hadn’t thought to thematize these portraits of my friends in such a heavy, “personal” way. I just thought my subjects looked incredible and I really wanted to paint them.

That said, pleasure is a complicated place to sit when you’re making images of anyone. The question of fetishization comes up. But my paintings are not trying to draw out some idea of my subjects’ “authentic” or quintessential selves. I don’t have access to that. I have access to surface, and to social dynamics. I used to say that I don’t trust representation. I’ve never seen a painting that looked real to me. But I’ve seen ones that felt real. If I’d wanted to make a really sexy, faithful portrait of Eric [N. Mack], I would have sanded the surface super smoothly, and—actually, I probably would have just taken a photo.

Jennifer Packer, Fire Next Time, 2012, oil on canvas, 72 x 156".

The earlier paintings that [exhibition’s curator] Melissa Blanchflower and I chose for this show are really the connective tissue between then and now. I can finally see the ways in which they pointed to the future of my practice. They were impossible to grasp at the time. And I’m somewhat shamelessly coming full circle to some of my earlier ideas about color, and presentation, and attitude, that I didn’t think were serious enough back then. There are also paintings in the show that I hadn’t seen in a while, and that I simply wanted to see again. I hadn’t seen Fire Next Time, 2012, since 2013. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

My bouquet paintings also began as a sort of respite—a resting space. When I first started painting flowers, I thought, Well, this is embarrassing, so I knew that I had to start investigating. I had a few studio visits and folks didn’t respond to them. It was mostly the men who didn’t, actually, which told me I definitely had to keep probing this. I keep turning away from certain viewerships and pursuing projects that might make me seem like a Sunday painter. I think the paintings press up on certain ideas of what art is and what art isn’t right now. And I want to resist any pressure to choose one vantage point from which to look at that work, and all my work. That kind of proximity is an illusion. People ask about my portraits, Who is this person? As if me saying their name would ever simply say it all.