Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / It’s quite a feat for a figurative painter to achieve both intimacy and remove simultaneously, but Jennifer Packer accomplishes just that in “The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing,” the vibrant survey of her work at the Whitney. Anchoring the show is a large unstretched canvas with the feel of a protest mural. Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!) (2020) remembers Breonna Taylor, the Black woman shot dead by Louisville police who had forcibly entered her home in the mistaken belief that she was dealing drugs. Packer bathes and obscures Taylor’s reclining survivor in luminous greens and seems to signal the mordant routineness of their circumstances with casually painted everyday household features: fans, paintings, a stairway. Perhaps elegiacally, a window frames a swooping black bird, a familiar symbol of death and darkness.
Packer’s paintings are expressionistic yet muted. In the primarily pink A Lesson in Longing, also unstretched, two figures, apparently a woman and a man, are even more diaphanous and ghostly, likewise ensconced in a domestic room with plants, wall hangings, and a table. The tentativeness of Packer’s line and the busy quality of her canvases together impart existential instability and precariousness, while her use of resonant color in depicting people – perhaps most emphatically in the cogently titled red piece The Body Has Memory and the predominantly yellow Tia – amplifies earthly presence. It’s as though her subjects can’t be sure they are being seen and counted among other tangible beings but at the same time are insisting on it. Subtly embattled and contentious, this is deftly powerful and thoughtful painting.
Substantively, Packer’s work concerns race in America: she is African-American, her human subjects are invariably Black, and she has said that her “inclination to paint, especially from life, is a completely political one. We belong here. We deserve to be seen and acknowledged in real time.” Jordan captures Jordan Casteel – Packer’s friend and another outstanding Black female figurative painter – and, more vaguely, two other fellow artists. They are in a studio arrayed with works in progress. The painting scans, at least in part, as an assertion and affirmation of cultural arrival. Even Packer’s paintings of plants have a provocative subtext and an urgent dynamism: one, a solemn piece that she made in tribute to Sandra Bland, the African-American woman who was found hanged in a Texas jail cell three days after being arrested for a traffic violation, is titled Say Her Name.
Packer’s work is not exclusively keyed to tragedy, endurance, and defiance in the face of injustice and marginalization. It is also more broadly about human vulnerability to circumstance. Cumulative Losses, a richly evocative painting, shows a pool player setting his hand-bridge to shoot. The focus is tighter than it is in the larger paintings, and the canvas less populated. The player, rendered in loose line, seems in control of the table, but the title suggests that it’s never for long enough and that his very agency is self-defeating. The near invisibility of the cue stick that he grips grimly bolsters the point. The piece conjures what psychologists call the realm of losses, in which gamblers have squandered so much of their stake that they are driven to keep playing – and probably losing – in desperate hope of winning it all back.
Packer is less inclined than, say, Kerry James Marshall, to overtly frame social irony, and she does not employ sharp political metaphors like Didier William’s unblinking eye. She is more directly moved by society’s personal ravages. Quite consciously, she eschews recording in visual detail how her subjects look. Instead, she imparts, vividly and poignantly, how they, complicated and scarred, make her feel and should make all of us feel. In her work there is delicate tension between protectiveness and scrutiny. The tender distance she keeps between herself and her subjects reflects Packer’s empathy and respect for people with whom she clearly feels connected. It also affords her and her audience a kind of buffer zone in which to register discomfiting insights about their – our – world as it roils.
“Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY. Through April 17, 2022.
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