New York

Jennifer Packer, The Eye Is Not Satisfied with Seeing, 2018, oil on canvas, 18 × 38".

Jennifer Packer, The Eye Is Not Satisfied with Seeing, 2018, oil on canvas, 18 × 38".

Jennifer Packer

Jennifer Packer’s paintings come, she has said, from “observation, improvisation, and memory.” That sounds a bit like realism, abstraction, and symbolism all at once—or maybe at different times of day? It’s a tall order, but her recent exhibition “Quality of Life” bore that out. Although what she paints—people, flowers—might sound limited, she can do pretty much anything she wants with her medium of choice (and with charcoal), and she allows herself the freedom to range widely in form and feeling, and sees more in her subjects than others might notice.

A striking example was Jess, 2018, an ostensibly direct composition in which a wild-haired sitter is shown sitting cross-legged, facing the viewer with a frank, ingenuous expression. But the painting’s focal point turned out to be not the face, but rather Jess’s folded hands; the intertwined fingers convey an intensity and complexity of feeling that the face wants to belie. The way the picture is rendered bespeaks openness and ease; just a few linear marks and some thin, translucent washes of color are sufficient to delineate a pair of legs or, even more faintly, the chair on which Jess sits. Yet the white scumbling over black that describes her shirt—and makes up the largest part of the image—is not only gorgeous in itself, but also suggests the dualities or contradictions any seemingly straightforward individual might embody.

The title of one of Packer’s works on display here might have served as the exhibition’s motto: The Eye Is Not Satisfied with Seeing, 2018. Its source is that most melancholy and poetic book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, which expresses what Baudelaire would later call ennui, the wearisome inability to find satisfaction in earthly life. But in relation to Packer’s work, I read the phrase differently: It implies not just the eye’s hunger—the painter’s hunger—for what can be seen, but that vision itself aspires to encompass all the senses. The eye wants to grasp its objects so deeply, so multidimensionally, that it wishes to assume the ability to hear, smell, taste, and above all, I think, touch: The eye wants also to caress. This work shows a bald man lying down, presumably asleep, covered by a blue blanket. Packer handles her oil paint as if it were watercolor. (Elsewhere it appears drier, like pastel, as in Citizen, 2018.) The intimacy between Packer and her model is palpable since he is so at ease with being depicted (or simply indifferent to the fact?) that he can sleep while posing. The extreme foreground is occupied by a portable radiator, indicated with formidable concision by a patch of bare canvas and a few pale-yellow lines. Perhaps the title’s proper biblical meaning communicates the psychic state of this drowsy old man, while a more hopeful reading would articulate what the artist might be feeling in her effort to convey the love (as I see it) she has for her subject.

Compared to her portraits, Packer’s flowers were evidently more abstract in the way that matters most to me—namely, that they defy language. That Packer desires even these forthrightly (and brilliantly) decorative works to have a human quality is evinced by her having titled two of them as if they were portraits, Laquan (1), 2016–18, and Laquan (2), 2017–18. I have to assume that they were named for Laquan McDonald, an African American teenager who was murdered in 2014 by a Chicago policeman. But in neither case do the paintings’ moods seem mournful, despite the gallery’s press release characterizing them as works of “grief, commemoration, and healing.” The first, dominated by straw-yellow and pale-green tones, should more properly be called a painting of grasses than of flowers; the latter, with day lilies and roses, is rife with searing reds and lavender. Both convey indescribable emotions—feelings held closer in the first case, more poignantly expressed in the second, but generously direct and frankly vulnerable either way.

Barry Schwabsky