Satisfied with Seeing

Art Review by Katherine Keltner.

Jennifer Packer’s solo show, The Eye is not Satisfied with Seeing, installed on the 8th floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is well worth a visit. Packer paints from observation and the works clearly show her attention to tender consideration, imbuing the figures, who appear almost viscerally lost in thought, with emotion. The works largely are about the Black experience and include several works about individuals who have recently been killed by police violence and with it the lack of consideration for the Black body. Though Packer is a painter, and the works are paint on canvas or linen, she seems less concerned with the materiality of paint and more concerned with drawing. The works read as drawings in paint with all of the movement and feeling found in the best of drawings.

Blessed are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!), 2020, Oil on canvas, 118 x 172 ½ inches
 (all images by the author)

On stepping off the elevator, one is met with a very large painting entitled Blessed are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!). It presents part of Breonna Taylor’s home, based on various photographs that emerged after her death. Filled with yellows and greens and a solid pink square in the upper right quadrant, the painting depicts a domestic scene that feels both intimate yet also very regular. Packer includes various objects that she, or any viewer, would likely also have at home, drawing a connection between Taylor and the artist or the viewer, and highlighting Taylor’s own humanity. The sole figure is lying on a sofa, one leg bent, one hanging over the sofa’s left arm, enjoying the comfort of being in the privacy of home. This security makes even more poignant the violent invasion of Taylor’s private space that we know is to come. 

Next to this work, and several other works in the show, is a wall label that gives some historic context to the events surrounding the painting’s subject. The facts surrounding Breonna Taylor’s death are plainly written and lie in contrast to the intimacy of the rendered space of Taylor’s home. 

All of the works in the show are figural: either of a human figure or of flowers as symbols of remembrance, honor, and mourning. And they all relate to the experience, a direct depiction, or portrait of a Black person, whether a figure who was killed by police violence or, someone unknown to the viewer, perhaps a friend of the artist’s. Each work has a feeling of memorialization, a tinge of sadness, and a depth of humanity that fills the figures with solemn reflection. 

Packer is seemingly a virtuoso with charcoal. My co-visitor, another artist, and I remarked that this might be the most facile and gorgeous use of the media we could recall seeing in contemporary work. There are a number of charcoal drawings on paper, and charcoal lines are also visible in many of the paintings.

Untitled, 2017, Charcoal on paper

In Untitled (above), the material is so smoothly applied it is nearly creamy, yet distinct lines float clearly over it to add to the forms. There is such a balance between an overall softness and delicate line delineation that is unusual with the medium. 

Packer’s use of paint, too, seems to draw from her experience and facility with drawing in general and charcoal specifically. The paintings mix moments of greatly varying transparencies and levels of finish that reveal the thinking behind the work.

The Body Has Memory, 2018, Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

Leaving some of that visible allows the viewer to feel privy to something more intimate in the artist’s process. Paint is loosely or thinly applied with a variety of brush sizes and opacities in individual works so that both finished and unfinished elements exist together and heighten the viewer’s engagement with the piece. Line too plays a large role so that the figures, forms, and space are often suggested by a simple line or gestural mark.

Some of the emotive power of Packer’s work is amplified, if not created, by a perspectival framing that seems to zoom in on certain features in the figure(s).

Lost in Translation, 2013, Oil on canvas, 54 ½ x 42 ½ inches

In Lost in Translation, the viewer looks up, sideways, and straight on at the figures. Packer’s use of foreshortening provides an extremity to the view that adds to the painting’s piquancy. 

Interestingly, there are only two or three really large paintings that are traditionally considered museum-sized, while most of the works on view read as sketches or studies. The smaller works are just as thoughtfully complex, rich, and complete in their subject and composition, size be damned. These works, perhaps above all, make clear that Packer is a very thoughtful witness to life and underscore her keen observational powers. She reminds us of our shared humanity. This is a show not to be missed.

Installation shot
Installation shot
Breathing Room, Flowers for Frank Bramblett, 2015, Oil on canvas, 48 x 29 inches

Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing, is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through April 17. It was first presented at the Serpentine Gallery, curated by Melissa Blanchflower and Natalia Grabowska, before traveling to the Whitney. The Whitney show is organized by Rujeko Hockley, Jane Panetta, and Ambika Trasi.

Katherine Keltner is a Brooklyn-based artist whose body of work includes paintings; drawings; photo-based, mixed media collages; installations; and artist’s books. Her work has been exhibited at galleries and art fairs nationally and internationally. Keltner is a co-editor and writer for POVarts. She is currently at work on an oral history project of Barbara Rose which will become part of the Getty Research Institute’s permanent collection.

All photos by the author.

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