The fifteen works in New York-based painter Jennifer Packer’s first solo institutional exhibition, “Tenderheaded,” feature highly expressive color, a fluid, energetic line, and a vigorous practice of scraping that exposes the strata of her compositions, some of which she reworks for years. This scumbling technique enhances the putrid yellow that models her father’s flesh in For James III (2013), which approximates the sallow hues of rotting vegetation.
The purpose of the vanitas still life is to evoke mortality by tinging lush botanical life with a hint of decay. In pairing portraits of African Americans with images of funerary bouquets, Packer confronts the spectacle of black death that pervades American culture, while handling her subjects with a remarkable delicacy. The show is haunted by the problem of how to picture loss in a way that honors the dead and uplifts the living. Packer attempts to deal with this by withholding or obscuring certain facets of her sitters from prying eyes. In a talk on the eve of the exhibition’s opening, the artist professed a desire to “protect” her sitters, which she does by enveloping them in a painterly field that plays with the viewer’s perception. In Graces (2017), Packer discards the rules of figure-ground relationships and Euclidian space. With a dark brown line, she barely picks out the faces of two reclining subjects from the rich sienna that permeates the entire surface. One figure ignores us while thrusting his flip-flop-clad feet toward our space; the other casts a confrontational glance over his shoulder. Among a few passages defined in lead white is the distinctive border of a Polaroid photograph floating like a ghost and showing only the same deep reddish-brown that surrounds it.
Packer employs the picture-within-a-picture convention subtly in several canvases: a blurry image of an adult cradling a child appears in Graces (2017), and a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pietà hovers behind the sitter in April, Restless (2017). These references suggest a theme of familial bereavement that is evoked directly in Say Her Name (2017), a rendering of a funeral bouquet. The social media campaign from which Packer derived her title demanded public recognition of Sandra Bland’s death in the Texas jail where she was imprisoned following a traffic stop in July 2015. Bland’s family resisted public visualizations of their private grief, refusing all media requests for photographs of the funeral. Packer’s tribute to a woman she never knew eschews figuration in favor of a furious arrangement of green tentacles that burst from the composition’s center. Rasping accents of scraped black pigment and sickly, viscous blue jostle with anemic pink blossoms, while tracks of solvent-thinned pigment run down the surface.
During her talk, Packer showed slides picturing black victims of state violence—Bland, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald. In characterizing her process of working from live models as a matter of “anticipating danger at every turn,” Packer alluded to the challenge she accepts with every painting. The work of representing black subjects in a media landscape saturated with images of black victims of state-sponsored violence is indeed risky. How does one simultaneously confront these oppressive forces without allowing the nefarious visual order of surveillance to dictate the ways in which those most oppressed by it are seen?