On ViewSerpentine Gallery
The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing
December 5, 2020 – March 14, 2021 (Dates Likely To Change Due To Tier 4 Restrictions In London)
In a corner of London’s Hyde Park there is a painting of exquisite blooms. Petals in peach, cyan, and blue emerge from a blanket of leaves. Opaque blocks of color mingle with cascades of paint that hint at the abundance of techniques at play. But for the artist, Jennifer Packer, this is not simply an exercise in painting.
Say Her Name (2017) is a reverie on the memory of Sandra Bland—the 28-year-old Black American woman who was found dead in a police cell in 2015 after being arrested for a minor traffic violation. Packer’s flowers are charged with meaning: a reminder of life’s impermanence and an imagining of the funerary bouquet that might have lain on Bland’s coffin. Bland’s body may be absent, but her presence—and the despair of shared grief— is palpable. Seen in the context of the Serpentine Gallery in London, the once proud center of the British Empire, Say Her Name takes on a new dark, post-colonial resonance.
At the heart of Packer’s first institutional show outside the US is the desire to make visible the invisible and do justice to stories like Sandra Bland’s, creating space in which to mourn Black deaths. Beautiful garlands—once perhaps the calling card of painterly skill—now act as surrogates of a life lived, like the apparition of a ghost. Portraits of friends, family, and fellow artists similarly shine a light on contemporary Black lives, traditionally overlooked or reduced by art history. “We deserve to be seen and acknowledged in real time,” she explains, “We deserve to be heard and to be imaged with shameless generosity and accuracy.” The curve of a knuckle or the joint of a knee shrouded in paint reveal Packer’s tender approach to representing those she cares most about—even those she has never met.
Packer’s community abounds at the Serpentine. The faces of fellow Yale graduates and teachers, Eric N. Mack and Tomashi Jackson, appear. Jordan Casteel, Tschabalala Self, and Devan Shimoyama are present amidst the chaos of the studio in Jordan (2014). The steely gray eyes of Packer’s father emerge in For James III (2013), shown lying supine on a mattress, his skin textured and worn, almost flayed, amidst a landscape of lush turquoise. Capturing these figures in paint, Packer solidifies their existence before they inescapably disappear in time. They teeter on the precipice between presence and absence.
Created from her studio in the Bronx, the works in this exhibition reveal an artist in the throes of discovery and delight when it comes to putting paint to canvas. The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing highlights her drawings for the first time, with such enigmatic works as Swim (2011) in which a body drifts through a murky pool, a piece of rope dangling nearby that sparks images of the hangman’s noose. Parker’s drawings prompt and provoke her paintings, performing a unique role all of their own.
Packer’s approach to painting reflects her underlying concern with the visible and invisible. The dewy quality of her paint, fluid and seemingly rapidly—and also carefully—applied, make the fleeting nature of life and stories of those like Sandra Bland, so often exiled to the shadowy recesses of history, into something tangible and charged. Her figures are fluid, made of water and air, threatening to slip through the cracks if not paid proper attention. In Lost In Translation (2013), the fingers, knees, and protruding jaw lines of straining bodies emerge from the haze; a halo of ochre nearly cloaks Tia (2017) as the sitter’s vibrant patterned socks protrude from the surface. A crouching woman almost dissolves entirely into the raspberry ground of Chey (2020), with just the whites of her eyes and flecks of nail polish visible through the fray. Packer’s figures are at once present in the here and now, and on the verge of vanishing into another realm altogether.
Never is this more apparent than in Transfiguration (He’s No Saint) (2017), in which a young man with raised arms, his lower half, rendered dramatically in brilliant yellow, red, and green, seems to float through a dark expanse of water or sky. His pose calls to mind the stop and search of a Black man by police. The circles on his flesh echo the marks of the stigmata. His eyes are lowered, lost in pleasure, pain, or resignation.
Packer draws the eye back to reality with details that mirror the clues laid out in Renaissance paintings, alluding to a patron’s identity perhaps or an artist’s true intention. Fire Next Time (2012) and Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!) (2020) are peppered with such objects—the blade of a fan, the arm of an easy chair, the steps of a staircase—that fuel our imaginations and color the lives of the sitters. Packer rewards careful looking with the revelation of hidden meanings in these details. Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!), the largest and most commanding painting at the Serpentine at nearly 10 by 14 feet, shows a solitary figure reclining lazily on a sofa. Immersed in a miasma of sallow yellow that gives the sense of the early morning sun, the tiles of a kitchen, cooking knives, and iron suggest the familiar ordinariness of Breonna Taylor’s home where she was shot 32times by police in March 2020.
The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing refers to a passage from Ecclesiastes which describes an innate human desire for knowledge that can never be sated. Her blossoming still lifes and portraits—medleys of observation, memory, and imagination—ask that we look longer, harder, and with more care in our bid to understand the nuances of contemporary Black lives. Though, perhaps too, Packer allows the mist to descend over her paintings with intent, acknowledging the power of her medium to reveal and veil the stories of those people she holds dearest.