Jennifer Packer and The Eye of the Beholder

The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing, The Whitney Museum, October 30, 2021 through April 17, 2022

“Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna!Breonna!)” (2020)

I have seen Packer quoted several times as wishing “to protect the privacy” of her subjects—pretty sure no portrait painter has ever said that before—or felt the need to. Is it even possible? Isn’t she the one who is taking that long slow observant look at her friends and family?

Or is she warning us, the viewers, not to gawk, pry, objectify, or sexualize?

I mentioned this “wish to protect” to an artist friend and he jumped to the idea that many successful
(and commissioned )portrait painters are adept at making their subjects look good. True, and there is so much else to say about other aspects of the portrait as a genre, but this is not what Packer is talking about. She is hyper-aware of the conflict between wishing to be visible and not wanting to be objectified particularly as pertaining to Black people and the White gaze. It is a paradox or maybe more like a Zen koan— worth thinking about, anyway, possibly gaining enlightenment.

One of the things that sometimes happens when you work from life is that the subject, whether a human or just an apple, becomes more strange and unknowable, more beautiful and vulnerable. Some of the portraits are prosaic, some are experiments that don’t work out. Chey’s glittering eyes are wary, rightfully so! but make it hard to see the rest of the painting. The purple hand is awful in The Mind Is Its Own Place, but Packer hits that point often enough—Tomashi, Joyce V— that I’ve become very interested in her work.

Emphatically, vulnerability is not a weakness. It’s on you if you think it is.

“The Body Has Memory” (2018) 60” x 48”

The Body Has Memory is an amazing painting. It is unphotographable. The middle of the painting is red as you can see but the center is actually a shimmering hot pink. It’s very hard to tear my eyes away from that pink and focus on the facial features… the hands… the feet…
Just a normal man—but what a heart!

“A Lesson in Longing” (2019)

This is what I wrote about A Lesson in Longing in 2019, one of the best paintings in the Whitney Biennial*:

“Packer’s Lesson in Longing does lure my eyes around and gives them something to do, which is to try to make sense of the physical space of the painting. The seated man in green shorts is contained and powerful like the aspidistra plant on the top right, and the standing woman connects to the hanging pothos deep center. It is exciting the way the pink wash comes and goes in the painting, becoming a drip curtain at the bottom edge. What interrupts the pleasure of this in and out is the awkward, harsh painting of the man’s right hand and the foot and hand of the woman. I also couldn’t help but notice that the aspidistra is really the only place the painter lets herself go. I wonder if it has anything to do with her desire “to present or protect humans in the work.”

I like it even more on second viewing. The white space that becomes a glowing slip! Also seeing A Lesson… in conjunction with Blessed Are Those…(see above) made me understand it more. In Packer’s portraits the human beings are vulnerable. In the figure paintings, it is the moment, the light, the sense of peace, the unguardedness that is very strong in both paintings and therefore fragile.

“Blessed are Those who Mourn (Breonna!Breonna!)” (detail) (2020)

Even without the title, not knowing that A Lesson… and the paintings of flowers were painted while grieving Breonna Taylor, I have no difficulty in seeing that they are about the fragility of the moment. The light is beautiful, the man is resting in the fullest sense of the word. I feel the heat, I see the simple apartment I have lived in myself, just trying to get through the intense heat in the middle of the day with a fan. I even wondered if the white shape on the leg might represent a bandage, a leg injury. Or maybe not. Both of these paintings are made with a really specific attention to detail, additive and subtractive, and an unusual use of underpainting.

“Memento mori … Say Her Name” (2017) 48” x 40”

I love that insistence that a painting does not have to be literal, that there can be a sense of fear in a bright space, that a painting of flowers is not just a painting of flowers. That is what a painting is, full of multiple and even contradictory meanings and specific to its time and place.

To get back to the viewer for a moment and to the name of the show: “The Eye is not Satisfied with Seeing”
The title is from Ecclesiastes 1:8

“All things are full of labor; Man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor the ear filled with hearing.

Very Old Testament—Solomonic, accurate, sick and tired of it all, sense of futility.

I think Jennifer Packer is adding the words that John added to this thought—“and I would heal them.”

John 12:40
“He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so that they cannot see with their eyes, and understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them.”



The Whitney Biennial 2019: Is it Safe?