PRINT May 2018


Jennifer Packer, Vision Impaired, 2015, oil on canvas, 42 1/4 × 53 7/8".

JENNIFER PACKER PAINTS intimate pictures. Her source material ranges from photographs to sittings to imagined scenarios, but the subjects are always the people she is closest to—friends, fellow artists, relatives, lovers. Unlike other contemporary artists who claim the portrait as their métier, Packer isn’t aiming to glamorize anyone, much less idealize them. She showcases ambiguity and hints at the fissures and contradictions of personality. With complex, confident paint handling and an increasingly restrained palette, she conveys affection and concern, yet establishes a respectful distance between subject and viewer.

Jennifer Packer, Graces, 2017, oil on canvas, 60 x 72".

One tactic for maintaining that sense of separation is her refusal of consistently legible imagery. Many critics have noted how closely Packer’s figurative paintings resemble abstract ones. But her work doesn’t arbitrarily jump into abstraction; any divergence from representation is duly considered. Take Vision Impaired, 2015, a puce interior that requires slow looking. In a detail reminiscent of Ferdinand Hodler’s deathbed scenes, a foot at the edge of the painting helps us to locate a reclining, apparently slumbering figure, the neck tilted at a sharp angle, a jacket draped over the shoulders. A cloud of gestural marks engulfs the sleeper, but it does not sprawl to take over the composition; it is corralled by the edge of what might be a door.

Jennifer Packer, Tia, 2017, oil on canvas, 39 x 25".

Packer’s canvases come into being over a period of anywhere from months to years. Her surfaces record this perseverating—knifing scrapes indicate a passage removed or the deleterious effect of a Gamsol drip, as in Graces, 2017. When an interviewer asked her last year how she knew when a painting was finished, Packer replied, “It’s the same as in a relationship with a person! One day you realize it’s just over, more so than done.” The remark might seem to suggest a blurring of the boundary between subject and object, but Packer has unequivocally rejected such a conflation: “It’s not figures, not bodies, but humans I am painting.”

Jennifer Packer, Jordan, 2014, oil on canvas, 38 5/8 x 47 3/4".

The force of her commitment to this idea is palpable—as can be seen, for example, in Tia, 2017. Tia rests with a pillow behind her and knees bent. Aviator glasses, their thin wire frames incised into the surface via the removal of paint with the back of a brush, rest on the bridge of her nose; her eyebrows are arched in a slightly skeptical manner. Her body is outlined with sketchy brushstrokes, but blazing orange radiates from her shirt like an aura, overriding those demarcations. Packer’s paintings are less snapshots of what someone looked like on a given day than documents of what the artist feels for them, how they’ve impacted her life. Her work is not focused on identity alone, but also on registering the processes of becoming and undoing. We can’t know Tia, but we can know the artist’s knowing, to the extent that she records it on her surfaces over time—and it’s through that conduit that some sense of the quiddity of this individual, however necessarily indirect, comes through. A black artist painting black subjects, Packer centers the personhood of her sitters and protects them from the exposure of representation at the same time. Mindful that her work places her subjects in the public eye, she aims to present each portrait “without damaging the individual or putting them in harm’s way.”

Jennifer Packer, Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 35 3/4 x 24".

Though Packer resists autobiographical readings of her work, from time to time she has offered the viewer glimpses of herself. Untitled, 2014, one of the few self-portraits she has painted, shows Packer seated within a highly worked field of ocher, her body immediately emerging from the din. The rendering of the artist’s distinctive jawline and posture captures the likeness with self-assurance and a hint of pathos. Much of the painting’s detail comes from reduction, scraping paint away to reveal a wrinkle on a forefinger or loosely laced Chuck Taylors. Jordan, 2014, depicts two people seated in an artist’s studio with several works in progress tacked to the wall behind them. The face of a third figure emerges in the upper right corner. The subjects are fellow artists Jordan Casteel, Tschabalala Self, and Devan Shimoyama. All three are recent graduates of the MFA program at Yale University, and this year Self, like Packer and Casteel before her, was selected as an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. One of Packer’s more chromatically varied paintings, Jordan contains multitudes. Both Self and the sketches above her are doubled, producing an effect of lapsing time. The painting’s focus is on the face of the titular subject, poignantly resolved against the marks that delineate the space. Everything seems to be in motion aside from Casteel. What at first appears to be a straightforward double portrait reveals itself to be an exercise in duplication and a meditation on the entanglement of any artist’s work with their social world. Art history is full of paintings of artists in their studios, but within the larger context of Packer’s practice, her contribution to that venerable genre has a different kind of charge. It’s possible to conceptualize the artist’s self-portraits as the center of a kind of concentric schema: Packer, her relatives and friends, and the institutions and structures through which they all move. The studio is absolutely integrated into this diagram as an institution, as a social and political structure in its own right, and as a potential center of power.

Jennifer Packer, An Exercise in Tenderness, 2017, oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 7".

The full scope of Packer’s vision was apparent this past fall in her solo institutional debut at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, curated by Solveig Øvstebø. The exhibition’s title, “Tenderheaded,” refers to children who experience excessive pain when having their hair done. In an interview, Packer shed light on the show’s name: “I’ve been thinking about black female subjectivity in my work for a long time and I think about how black women often use this term ‘tenderheaded’ to describe other black women. I’ve been called tenderheaded. It’s an assessment of not only physical sensitivity, but also an emotional sensitivity, perhaps bordering on weakness.” She continued, “But the weakness isn’t necessarily a fault—it’s more a way of noting the need to take extra care of that person. I liked it because it was a really concise way of assessing a level of power and strength between women and the people—friends, family, children, etc.—they look after.”

What does tenderness mean under life-threatening conditions?

This notion of taking care was in evidence throughout the show, sometimes in unexpected ways. Despite its diminutive size (smaller than a standard sheet of paper), An Exercise in Tenderness, 2017, is one of the most compelling paintings Packer has made to date. We see what appears to be a police officer with one hand held out at shoulder height, as if he is looking through the sight of a gun. Yet no weapon is visible—in its place is a void that draws our gaze. Though the work was an outlier in the exhibition, it also seemed to be the linchpin, immediately prompting the question: What does tenderness mean under life-threatening conditions? Who has exercised tenderness here? The cop, by not shooting? Or the artist, by representing a cop who lacks the means to shoot?

Jennifer Packer, Say Her Name, 2017, oil on canvas, 48 x 40".

Around 2012, Packer began painting bouquets of flowers. They started out, she says, as a kind of palate cleanser, a respite from the weight of painting a personal relationship. Yet in time these floral studies became inspired by people, most of whom she doesn’t know and never will. As the Black Lives Matter movement brought greater mainstream attention to the police killings of innocent black men and women, it became clear to Packer whom the flowers were meant for. Painted after the tragedy of Sandra Bland’s senseless death, Say Her Name, 2017, served as a way for Packer to cope. The artist decided to make a painting not of Bland, or about her, but rather for her. Like her portraits, so attuned to the representation of those who have historically been excluded from depiction or pushed to its furthest margins, the potential capacities of her funerary arrangements are manifold: an offering, a memorial, a tender protest.

“Jennifer Packer: Tenderheaded” is on view at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, through July 8.

Beau Rutland is a curator and writer living in New York.