Portraiture is everywhere at the moment, in portray and images alike, and some of the ideal of it has a distinct purpose: to make those people who have been rendered invisible — on museum walls, in community tradition, in political discourse — noticeable. This drive to honor and dignify folks by representation comes at an ethical expense that typically goes unremarked, while: Does exposing your sitters to the viewer’s gaze transform them into points to be looked at, emptied of their concealed complexities? Can you paint someone’s portrait though still insisting that vision are not able to — probably even ought to not — capture all there is to know?
I never know any artist appropriate now who is doing as substantially to address these questions as Jennifer Packer, whose retrospective is on check out at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Although portray her topics, usually those people closest to her, with a deep sensitivity, she enables them to continue to be just beyond our visual grasp. It’s an act of protectiveness and care that is moving and even now leaves the viewer with a great deal to ponder.
The title of the exhibition, “The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Looking at,” refers to a passage from Ecclesiastes that describes the human craving for expertise that can hardly ever be sated. It’s a paradoxical but completely apt entry point for this painter, whose function is primarily based on eager observation, although consistently probing the restrictions of representation.
The present, which originated at the Serpentine Gallery in London, features 35 is effective below depicting close friends and acquaintances in domestic interiors bouquets of bouquets, some of which have been painted to commemorate people who have died, generally Black victims of law enforcement violence and a handful of rarely seen drawings. They day from 2011, the calendar year in advance of Packer graduated from Yale’s M.F.A. software, to the current.
They include things like her greatest portray, “Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!),” made for the duration of the Covid lockdown in 2020. At about 10 feet by 14 ft of unstretched canvas tacked to the wall, it has presence that is each monumental and casual. The title refers, of class, to Breonna Taylor, the 26-yr-outdated Black professional medical worker killed by law enforcement in her residence in Louisville, Ky., in March 2020 — an function, along with the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, that sparked Black Life Matter protests nationwide that May well.
The photograph, awash in acid yellow tones, is based on photographs of Taylor’s condominium. Packer pays certain awareness to the common objects that occupied what must have been a spot of refuge. The artist will make you do the job to see her paintings, and they reward these sustained seeking: Out of the mainly monochromatic area arise a ghostly fly swatter, a box enthusiast, a poster with an inspirational aphorism, internet pages from a Batman comedian, an iron, a wood-grained kitchen cupboard, and a lot more. They appear in approaches that do not generally make sense. Why is the chessboard subsequent to the stove? What, if anything at all, are these objects sitting down on or connected to? Why are some barely delineated even though many others finely rendered? The logic is that of a head seizing on inconsequential items in the process of coming to terms with an frustrating grief.
In the foreground, a shirtless guy wearing blue basketball shorts sleeps on a tufted couch. As with substantially of the operate in the display, refined artwork-historical references accumulate and clash to convey complex moods. In this case, the figure’s tilted-back again head evokes vulnerability and enjoyment (believe Girodet’s neoclassical painting “The Snooze of Endymion”), pathos (the severed heads of corpses painted by Géricault), and martyrdom (any range of Renaissance Pietas, or Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat”).
What you do not see in this canvas, however, is Breonna Taylor herself.
Packer speaks of painting as a means of bearing witness to Black existence. But bearing witness does not signify, for this artist, serving up her sitters to the viewer’s hungry gaze. As if in defiance of the unlimited videos and images of men and women who have been subject to state-sanctioned and institutional violence that flood our social media streams, Packer lets Taylor a scarce privilege: that of privacy.
The exact is legitimate of her flower continue to lifes, in which sensitive blossoms and foliage show up to float in an indeterminate area. The artist refers to some of these as funerary bouquets — functions of commemoration that let her, as she explained in a recent interview, “move by means of her grief,” whether of a precise particular person or a generalized feeling of loss. “Say Her Name” (2017) is a modern day-day memento mori marking the death of Sandra Bland, the youthful civil legal rights activist, though in police custody in 2015 just after her arrest for a slight targeted visitors violation. Her demise sparked renewed attention to law enforcement violence in opposition to Black women.
Packer ways her sitters with unfailing tenderness and generosity. Some of her subjects are acquainted faces from the artwork planet: the curator Jessica Bell Brown seems in “Jess” (2018), the artists Eric N. Mack in “The Overall body Has Memory” (2018) and “Eric (II)” (2013), Tomashi Jackson in “Tomashi” (2016), and Jordan Casteel in “Jordan” (2014).
It is an endlessly interesting paradox that, by a mindful study of gesture, Packer produces convincing representations of true men and women even though her subjects normally vanish into their monochromatic environment, or are manufactured challenging to see completely in other approaches. Sketchy, even agitated contours scarcely outline them. Paint — and with it, facial functions and bodily definition — is scraped off with the palette knife as typically as it is laid on.
In Packer’s canvases, the line between drawing and portray is infrathin, and so it is gratifying to see along with the paintings a tiny collection of operates on paper. Among the them is “The Head Is Its Very own Place” (2020). Here, lines outline the two figures though at the same time discomposing and merging them. A bent head drips febrile marks as if it’s melting off the web page a leg seems bent a single way, although a gray wash and the untouched white of the paper advise that it’s kneeling one more way. All over again we see the play in between virtually inchoate mark-building and breathtaking specificity: An undefined deal with is rubbed into the floor with charcoal, but its hand is picked out, evidently, with purple crayon.
It is as if the a lot more the artist appears to be, the much less she understands. But this admission of unknowing — a disarmingly humble assertion from an artist who verges on the virtuosic — is a recognition of her subjects’ sophisticated humanity that can under no circumstances be contained by mere representation.
Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Contented With Looking at
By way of April 17, 2022, the Whitney Museum of American Artwork, 99 Gansevoort Road, Manhattan, (212) 570-3600 [email protected]. Readers should reserve tickets in progress these 12 many years of age and more mature must display proof they have obtained at least one particular dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.