“Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied with Seeing” at the Whitney Museum of American Art

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The American painter Jennifer Packer’s show, “The Eye Is Not Satisfied with Seeing,” at the Whitney Museum was a wonderful exhibition that makes advances in figurative art. Educated as an undergraduate at the Tyler School of Art outside Philadelphia, and at Yale University, where she received her MFA degree, Packer now lives in New York. Her art, often of friends, combines brushy, freely given but accurate responses to those she knows and the surroundings she finds them in. At the same time, her floral paintings, expansively expressionist, can be both marvelous studies of the beauty of flowers, their color especially, as well as a memorial to black women murdered by the police. Packer sees herself not only working within figuration but also as a political artist, and this is true. But the ongoing prejudice and violence imposed on people of color throughout America occurs not as an actual depiction on the paintings, but rather as a background permeating the lyricism of the artist’s sensibility. These paintings are elegies meant to recall the troubling events of black American history, as well as being excellent examples of art, based on the complexity and brilliance of her hand.

Seeing this show in New York, where lyric expressionism still maintains a major role, is to become aware again of figurative art’s ability to render the person and other recognizable themes in ways that do justice to the past. In Packer’s case, we have a past fraught with racial assault, a past that extends into the present and more than likely will continue into the future. Thus, Packer’s memory is directed toward former and ongoing vicissitudes of African-American culture. At the same time, it brilliantly restates themes that are traditional in nature. What could be more traditional than a painting of flowers? The brushy attributes of her floral designs do in fact link up with the American major movement of abstract expressionism, now best considered a historical event, just as the works are devoted to a realism that refers to contemporary life. The intricacies of Packer’s art thus involve a rumpled realism in which the general impression of the composition is as important as the specifics, which tend to be expressively painted. This is not to say that the work is excessively complicated, either in theme or handling, but rather that drips and inchoate expanses of paint, along with partial rather than complete approximations of the figure, create an ambience in which nothing seems settled.

Because Packer does not depict violence directly, we can only tell from the wall texts what certain paintings may politically portray. By foregoing the representation of direct violence, Packer is able to concentrate on ambience and form. But in her remarks, she is very much a political artist. Memorably, she has commented, “We belong here.” In her portraits of friends, her unusual technical skills, in drawing and painting both, stand out. The atmosphere is one of veiled portrayal and strong emotion. The paintings illustrate both social and personal history, in ways that pay attention to lives regularly lived under pressure. Despite the abstract passages, Packer needs to be considered a figurative artist. Now that lyric abstraction is several generations old in America, as a genre it is easier to bring into play, not so much on a comprehensive level as in a smaller way, and this is what happens in some of the effects in Packer’s paintings. These effects do not overwhelm the figurative experience that holds sway in her art; rather, they make the images more complex. At the same time, they do recognize abstract expressionism, one of America’s best moments in art. So there is an unusual, and inspired, complexity in the work we see. Although Packer actively makes art that acts as a witness to the long history of difficulties endured by African-Americans, she also maintains her engagement with the practice of painting.

The implicit political content in Packer’s work raises a very interesting, very current question in American art: How do we transform our social beliefs into compositions that are not limited by literalism? Often the message in political work is so transparently evident as to take over the image. Yet, no matter how well intended the artist may be, a gap can easily occur between the passion of her social stance and its expression in visual terms. The implications of the painting can become so abstract as to justify an assertion whose meaning is necessarily dependent on a quote from the artist or a wall text. If we look at Goya, one of the first great political artists leading to modernism, we find that his work is regularly meaningful, being the result of a sympathetic humanism that we understand at once. Yet in the work of many artists today, the politics are indirect; therefore, it takes a lot of thought to comprehend their stance. What Packer has done so well is to relegate her justifiable outrage at the long, ongoing history of American racism through the act of painting. Thus, a figure, at first glance someone simply resting on a couch, becomes, in light of more information, a victim of deadly violence by the police. Or an arrangement of flowers is offered as a memorial for another woman killed by authorities. The space between Packer’s import and the descriptive directness we encounter in the paintings is actually a site where intention and representation merge. Packer inhabits this site by means of unusual ability. Nonetheless, she has refused to forget the fraught history of African-Americans even when she is painting works that result in appreciation and enjoyment.

At the Whitney Museum, on coming out of the elevator, the viewer faces the large painting Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!) (2020), a large yellow interior with a black woman lying on a sofa. The work is based on the shooting of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. The police supposedly entered the apartment looking for drugs but found none; it looks very much like Taylor’s death was a murder, without justification. We know from the title that the painting is lamenting the person represented. The interior exists with a conventional set of objects: a fan, an iron, a group of large, green plant fronds on the right, and on the upper left corner, a picture of a large bird in flight against a blue sky. There is nothing in the painting that refers openly to the violence that took the woman’s life. But knowing the circumstances of her death invests this painting with a gravitas made memorable by painterly skill. This is the key to Packer’s effectiveness as a painter and witness. The meaning of her painting hovers over and around it, resulting in a suggestive ambience we need to understand to fully make sense of the scenario. So Packer intimates rather than asserts. It is an approach that asks the audience to merge the visual aspect of the painting with the social suffering that originated it. Interestingly, the work’s placement of disparate effects, figurative and abstract, and objects spread across the composition make the painting unusually varied, with multiple centers of interest. It loosely contains the existence of things whose cohesion is intuitive and not so actively determined. This happens often in Packer’s art. It is a real advance in the way painting can occur; not much is completely finished in the composition, with the artist preferring a style that is as much in motion as it is a stationary depiction. Thus our experience of the painting’s multiple valences, social and esthetic, is consequently enriched.

Packer’s freedom in her representations is a visual decision that expands the way we can experience painting. She covers the spectrum from the finer aspects of figuration to the more expressionist effects of abstraction. Of course, Packer cannot be characterized as an abstract artist, despite the fact that she makes good use of nonobjective considerations. She is truly an artist of realism, but in a way that recognizes the potential of merging her style with flourishes that are not easily related to the recognizable aspects of her art. This might well account for the intricacy of Packer’s paintings, which engage us with a variety of styles, sometimes joining them in ways that fit together and sometimes setting them in deep contrast. But the experience of the work is not discordant; instead, it provides us with a number of approaches that engage the audience with their broad scope. The artist’s themes are used to expose the history of prejudice; additionally, it might be said that the painting style itself is profoundly possessed by numerous characteristics belonging to different approaches in art. The push and pull of these differing styles imbue Packer’s paintings with remarkable diversity, as well as an openness to painterly events that, within the painting, both block out symbiotic relationships as well as stand on their own. So the composition is centered and de-centered in the same moment. Hovering as she does among differing ways of working within the same painting, Packer makes it clear that the ambiguity of her hand is a strength supporting her vision. One does not sense the ambiguity as a lost focus; rather, her audience views the work as an invitation to contemplate a panoply of techniques, as well as, sometimes, an unrevealed comment on racial violence  This is done, though, without any loss of a sense of witness or a lessening in the strengths of her abilities as an artist.

A portrait painting, For James (III) (2013), presents us with a bare-chested man, painted upside down while resting on a brown garment on top of a light blue mattress without sheets. To the right of the mattress is an area of dark green that extends to the edge of the painting. The man painted gazes directly at us with blue eyes; the overall composition of the painting recognizes Titian’s great work The Flaying of Marsyas, which illustrates a story taken from Ovid, in which the central figure is shown as hanging upside down. The details of Packer’s work–the partially unclothed figure lying on a naked bed–may suggest a connection stronger than friendship, as notes on the painting imply. But it could also simply be an unusual figure study of a friend. Portraiture, in Packer’s original arrangements, is a strength of the artist. Again, we see a painting whose strengths derive from innovative positioning: the way the body is reversed on the bed. Also, the colors–the brown of the shirt, the blue of the mattress, the green of the composition’s right edge–seem both to contrast and concur. So it is fair to say unstated implications generally abound in Packer’s art. In her full-length portrait of close friend and artist colleague Eric N. Mack, painted in 2018, she demonstrates her strength in following a traditional genre, at the same time investing it with original effects–especially the color red she has chosen to render most of the figure. Mack is painted sitting on a couch, wearing a deep red jacket and pants produced in a loose combination of red and whie. His crossed legs accentuate the informality of the painting. Additionally, the figure does not directly gaze at us, so our perception is made more complex by the distance established by his oblique regard. He looks meditative, lost in a train of thought. This is a portrait of a good friend and colleague that preserves his privacy. It is an excellent demonstration of friendship.

In the floral memorial painting Say Her Name (2017), Packer commemorates the death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland while in police custody in Texas. Although Packer did not know Bland, she was overwhelmed by her death, which was called a suicide but  whose circumstances remain troubling and mysterious. Packer chooses to display her emotion without actually painting Bland. Instead, she presents an arrangement of flowers, blue and white and yellow, embedded within many leaves. The background is dark in the upper part of the painting, and yellow in the lower half, with a white area on the bottom right. The profusion of leaves and flowers feels like an outpouring of grief. We know, of course, that floral arrangements are often part of public remembrances of the dead, so that once we understand the horrific situation that engendered Say Her Name, we recognize the pain behind the image. This work is made that much stronger by Packer’s choice to communicate her mourning in a circuitous fashion; the flowers act as a metaphor for the artist’s bereavement. It is a beautiful painting that remembers a terrible event. All of Packer’s paintings offer strong emotion, and many of them are brought about in response to violence incurred by prejudice. As a result, feeling, technique, and political awareness merge in a fashion that we do not forget.

In 2015, Packer began working with monochromatic painting. Vision Impaired (2022) involves the use of a single color: a dark mauve. In the composition, we see a figure on the right, very indistinctly rendered; the person’s legs are extended to the left, seemingly resting on a support. In the back, walls frame a door painted a very dark mauve. Perhaps the title refers to the visual ambiguity of the painted figure; color itself appears to be the center of the artist’s focus–at least as much as the blurred composition. In Vision Impaired, we can’t fully make out what we see. It feels like Packer is commenting on how the use of one color can take over our interest in its own right, rendering content indistinguishable, thus impairing our vision. Maybe this work is an experiment in how a painting can be disguised by emphasizing its hue alone. Packer chooses to hide definition by more than a little, making the composition secondary. In a way, then, she is emphasizing abstraction in the work, mostly because our reading turns from undefined representation toward an appreciation of color for its own sake. This does not mean we forget the implications of what is recognizable in the painting. Instead, it means that Packer is experimenting with one color as a visual event that is equal in importance to the figural implications of her picture. Here the combination of the mauve color and the suggested imagery result in a painting that is genuinely inventive. Packer therefore advances her visual intuition by instituting a focus that is unusual and new.

“The Eye Is Not Satisfied with Seeing” is based on the premise that many kinds of approaches can be taken in regard to contemporary painting. In Packer’s accomplished lexicon, a strong sense of justice vies with the act of painting. To her credit, she finds ways of working that recognize both art and politics. She does so in a way that is highly creative, partly because her approach to painting is many-faceted, and partly because her social concerns treat the continuing problem of bias in America. The narrative implicit in a number of her artworks strengthens our hope that the mistreatment and violence besetting African-Americans can be confronted in conjunction with an appreciation of Packer’s skill. We must remember that even when Packer paints flowers, it may not be only flowers she is painting. She often stands as an given to memorial, in search of moral truths just as much as visual explorations. As a result, the paintings witness the grief that results from the distortions of racism. Packer asks us to participate in her emotion in her paintings, which record events that never should have happened. In the long run, her viewers can only hope that such art will bring a larger, more accurate view of the difficulties American society faces. If we do not stand up to these difficulties, as Packer does so well, we will be forced to repeat a grievous mistake that has lasted for centuries.

 

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