Transparency, opacity and limits of human understanding in “The Eye is not Satisfied with Seeing” by Jennifer Packer at the Whitney Museum
New Artblog contributor Kate Brock reviews “Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Happy With Sight,” a ten-year study of the painter’s portraits, interiors, and radiant funeral bouquets. “Packer doesn’t shirk the power to reveal her relationship, sometimes her love, for the people she paints, but in every stroke it’s also a preservation of their humanity, of their opacity,” Kate says. The traveling retrospective is currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art until April 17, 2022.
At the entrance to Jennifer Packer’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, hangs a wall-sized mural of a yellow-green interior: “Blessed are those who cry (Breonna! Breonna!)”. The lower portion of the image is occupied by a resting black man, his head and torso constructed through semi-transparent shadows and warm red browns. The citrine of the tufted sofa he is lying on pierces his skin, as if his body and the furniture formed their own entity. His aqua basketball shorts flash blue, contrasting with the flat pink plane above him. The painting consisted of images of the interior of Breonna Taylor’s apartment that were released to the media after she was shot by Louisville police on March 13, 2020. Packer returned a chorus of household items around the figure – an iron, a chessboard, a standing fan, a houseplant. His economical brushstrokes describe convincing forms without renouncing their entanglement with the atmosphere. Here, the particular matters in the sense of the whole.
The tension between found identities and looser abstract painting passages accompanies Packer’s visual language through the 31 paintings and 4 drawings in the exhibition. Touring from the Serpentine Gallery in London, the exhibition spans a decade of work. Early paintings have more concrete form and color relationships which Packer later develops in monochromatic compositions. In “Carolina” (2011), a floating black door frames a resting person casually stretched out in a pink and blue garment, the shirtless torso of another character revealing a neon orange underlay through the brown transparency of his. skin. People and their surroundings appear stitched together, patch of color next to patch.
In 2015, Packer started working with vibrant monochrome palettes. In “The Body Has Memory” (2018), a young man in a red hoodie sits with his hands resting on his knees. Her face, hands, and feet are all painted in the same shades of red-purple, sometimes scratched to reveal a sheer pink, or layered with subtle touches of purple and brown to shape her flesh. The colored shroud protects the subject’s inner world while leaving open an invitation to an empathetic gaze through the moments of detail.
The title of the program, The eye is not satisfied to see, comes from Ecclesiastes 1: 8, the biblical passage characterized by the melancholy that accompanies the limits of human knowledge on earth. In the context of Packer’s paintings, the line suggests that the eye craves understanding. The eye not only sees, but lingers with desire and the realm of the invisible. The lack of dimensional representation of blacks, especially black women, in the history of painting also leaves the eye unsatisfied, in search. Packer’s vision reveals historical absences by representing alternative systems of valorization and dignity.
In his interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Packer describes the connection between vision and light: “I think I approach painting through questions of hierarchy, starting with what has the deepest meaning. Historically, light is of value, so anything of value is blessed with a glow. Packer manipulates the inherent value of creating images for surprising purposes. History is replete with examples of value relegated to those in power or strengthening the existing social order. But through Packer’s brush, painting becomes a tool to disturb conventional hierarchies in favor of more complicated representations. His portrayal not only includes people who are not reflected in the annals of history, it extends attention to their surroundings, flowers, fans and shod feet.
The exhibit includes several paintings of funeral bouquets that signify Packer’s grieving process for the very public and brutal deaths of black people she names in titles, including Sandra Bland and Laquan McDonald. Flowers hold space for absence, but they are also tender offerings of beauty to celebrate the lives they represent.
In the same interview, Packer cites the grim images of Caravaggio’s suffering and his urge to paint raw vulnerability as long-standing influences on his work. Packer’s paintings echo Caravaggio’s sensitivity to revealing meaning without erasing the mystery. In the drawing “The Mind is Its Own Place” (2020), two figures are locked together in a perpetual bond, their body parts fading, while the white of the paper marks the luminous segmentation of a knee that s advance. Packer built a sense of depth through careful distribution of light and dark – recognition of a face, fingers, and toes, emerging through deeper midtones framed by blurred darkness.
Packer’s resistance to overdetermination reminds me of Édouard Glissant’s essay, “For Opacity,” in which he argues against the mechanisms of colonial racism and barbarism by defending everyone’s right to remain opaque. The sacred interiority of the person, so undermined by racialized violence, is also violated by modes of representation that stress a singular or stereotypical identity. In order to preserve these vital differences which formulate thought, he affirms: “We demand the right to opacity for all. Packer does not shy away from the power to reveal her relationship, sometimes her love, to the people she paints, but in every stroke is also a preservation of their humanity, of their opacity.
“Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing” exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, until April 17, 2022
Kate Brock is a writer and fine art painter based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She graduated from the MA in Artistic Writing program at the School for Visual Arts in New York City, where she received the Paula Rhodes Prize for her outstanding contribution to the discipline of artistic writing. She writes about anarchism, micro-stories, plant life and the pleasure of painting. Follow his work at www.katherynbrock.com.