The portrait is everywhere right now, in painting as well as in photography, and some of the best of them have a specific purpose: to make visible those who have been made invisible – on museum walls, in public culture, in speech. Politics -. This desire to honor and make people worthy through performance comes at an ethical cost that often goes unnoticed, however: does exposing your models to the viewer’s gaze transform them into objects to behold, emptied of their hidden complexities? Can you paint someone’s portrait while emphasizing that vision cannot – maybe even shouldn’t – capture everything there is to know?
I don’t know of any artist at the moment who does as much to answer these questions as Jennifer Packer, whose retrospective is presented at Whitney Museum of American Art. While painting her subjects, usually those closest to her, with a deep sensitivity, she allows them to stay just beyond our visual reach. It is an act of protection and care that is moving and still leaves much to contemplate the viewer.
The title of the exhibition, “The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing,” refers to a passage from Ecclesiastes that describes the human longing for knowledge that can never be satisfied. It is a paradoxical entry point but quite appropriate for this painter, whose work is based on keen observation, while constantly probing the limits of representation.
The 35 works here represent friends and acquaintances in domestic interiors; bouquets of flowers, some of which were painted to commemorate the deceased, often blacks victims of police violence; and a handful of rarely seen drawings. They date from 2011, the year before Packer graduated from Yale’s MFA program, to the present day.
They include her larger painting, “Bless those who cry (Breonna! Breonna!),” Done during the Covid lockdown in 2020. At about 10 feet by 14 feet of unstretched canvas nailed to the wall, she has a presence at both monumental and informal. The title of course makes reference to Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old black medical worker killed by police at her home in Louisville, Ky., In March 2020 – one event, with the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, this sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the country in May.
The image, awash in acid yellow tones, is based on photographs of Taylor’s apartment. Packer pays special attention to ordinary objects that occupied what should have been a place of refuge. The artist makes you work to see his paintings, and they reward such a sustained gaze: from the largely monochrome surface emerge a ghostly fly swatter, a fan, a poster with an inspiring aphorism, pages of a Batman comic strip. , an iron, a wood-grain kitchen cabinet, and more. They appear in a way that doesn’t always make sense. Why is the chessboard next to the stove? What, if any, do these objects rest or are they attached to? Why are some barely demarcated while others are finely rendered? The logic is that of a mind grabbing hold of unimportant things to come to terms with overwhelming grief.
In the foreground, a shirtless man in blue basketball shorts sleeps on a padded sofa. As with most of the works in the exhibition, subtle references to the history of art accumulate and clash to convey complex atmospheres. In this case, the head tilted back of the character evokes vulnerability and pleasure (think of Girodet’s neoclassical painting “The sleep of Endymion”), pathos (the severed heads of corpses painted by Géricault) and martyrdom (no. (any number of Renaissance Pietas, or Jacques -La “Mort de Marat” by Louis David).
What you don’t see in this canvas, however, is Breonna Taylor herself.
Packer talks about painting as a way to bear witness to black life. But testifying does not mean, for this artist, serving her models to the hungry gaze of the spectator. As if in defiance of the endless videos and photographs of people who have been the subject of state-sanctioned and institutional violence that flood our social media feeds, Packer grants Taylor a rare privilege: that of privacy.
The same goes for his still lifes of flowers, in which delicate flowers and foliage seem to float in an indeterminate space. The artist calls some of them funeral bouquets – acts of commemoration that allow him, as she said in a recent interview, “going through grief”, whether it is about a particular person or a generalized sense of loss. “Say Her Name” (2017) is a modern day memento mori marking the death of Sandra Bland, the young civil rights activist, while in police custody in 2015 after her arrest for a minor traffic violation . Her death sparked renewed attention to police violence against black women.
Packer approaches his babysitters with unfailing tenderness and generosity. Some of his subjects are familiar faces from the art world: curator Jessica Bell Brown appears in “Jess” (2018), artists Eric N. Mack in “The Body Has Memory” (2018) and “Eric (II ) ”(2013), Tomashi Jackson in“ Tomashi ”(2016) and Jordan Casteel in“ Jordan ”(2014).
It is an endlessly fascinating paradox that, through careful study of gesture, Packer creates compelling depictions of real people, even though his subjects often disappear into their monochrome surroundings or are made difficult to see fully in other ways. Fragmentary, even agitated outlines barely define them. The paint – and with it, facial features and body definition – is scraped off with the palette knife as often as it is applied.
In Packer’s canvases the line between drawing and painting is infra-thin, and it is therefore gratifying to see alongside the paintings a small selection of works on paper. Among them is “The Mind Is Its Own Place” (2020). Here, lines define the two figures while simultaneously breaking them down and merging them. A bent head lets feverish marks dripping as if it were melting on the page; one leg appears to be bent in one direction, although a gray wash and the intact white of the paper suggest he is kneeling in another direction. Again we see the play between almost unfinished branding and amazing specificity: an undefined face is rubbed across the surface with charcoal, but his hand is clearly chosen with a purple pencil.
It’s as if the more the artist looks, the less she knows. But this admission of ignorance – an assertion of disarming humility from an artist who borders on the virtuoso – is a recognition of the complex humanity of her subjects that can never be contained by mere performance.
Jennifer Packer: The eye is not happy to see
Until April 17, 2022, the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan, (212) 570-3600; [email protected]. Visitors must book their tickets in advance; those 12 and over must prove that they have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.