Art In Conversation
Jennifer Packer with Amber Jamilla Musser
“I think people believe that beauty sits in opposition to criticality. People talk about beauty in relationship to artifacts, but no one really talks about chasing it or reaching for it.”
New York CityWhitney Museum of American Art
The Eye is Not Satisfied with Seeing
OCtober 30, 2021 – April 17, 2022
From October 30–April 17, 2022, Jennifer Packer’s (b. 1984, Philadelphia, PA) decade-spanning survey, The Eye is Not Satisfied With Seeing, is on view at the Whitney Museum. The contemplative exhibition premiered in May 2021 at the Serpentine Gallery in London before crossing the Atlantic. The Eye is Not Satisfied With Seeing brings together Packer’s intimate (and often monochromatic) portraits of friends and family with still lives of floral bouquets meant to memorialize those, like Sandra Bland, whose lives were taken too soon. Occupying the eighth floor of the Whitney, the show is as beautiful as it is haunting. I sat down with Packer over zoom to discuss Blackness, painting, and temporality. The lively conversation roamed through art history, Black feminisms, and the political import of shifting hierarchies of valuation.
Amber Jamilla Musser (Rail): I’ve been an admirer of your work for several years now. I really love the refusal of a spectacularity around Blackness. There’s so much just in the title of the show, The Eye is Not Satisfied With Seeing, in terms of thinking about a sense of Black visuality. I’m not sure that I would necessarily say refusing the gaze but presenting a version of people that happen to be Black.
Jennifer Packer: I’m reading this book by Kevin Quashie called The Sovereignty of Quiet where he’s talking about the distinction between quiet and silence, quiet being this interior inevitability from which great expression can spring, and silence as a moment in which you are withholding or refusing or repressing. I think that this idea that everything that I say is all that I have to say, or everything that I present is all I know is something that I think about a lot with image-making and the ways that people produce narratives around the work of Black, brown and POC artists—that the didactic is at the center. I’m interested, of course, in this idea of painting people who happen to be Black, which is something that’s inextricable from my experience, but for some people it’s not. I’m thinking about Glissant, bell hooks. I’m thinking about lots of different ways of approaching identity in representation.
Rail: If I were to describe what I think is going on in a lot of these paintings, it’s that, it’s this interior aliveness (and Quashie’s new book is called Black Aliveness, Or A Poetics of Being), it’s also this sense that there’s this thing going on that you don’t access. In seeing your work, it’s interesting to think both about the way that that sense of interiority is created—I’m interested in the translucence, the drips, the melting, and the sense of porosity. I was also really interested in the way these interiorities often have plants in them, or water, as a way of bringing this outdoors into Black life. I feel like there’s so many different gestures towards where life is residing in your work that I find really moving.
Packer: What’s great about painting is that you can go to the museum and see a work where you feel that you know what the subject is. And because of this standard rectangle, there are other things that need to be filled in, and every painter relates to that information differently. The Dutch are really emphatic about every moment being perfect. But, in most paintings, it’s hierarchical, so the subject is central and then we go down from there. So maybe there’s a servant, maybe there’s a landscape, maybe there’s a narrative in the background, or whatever we can call background. I’m interested in the ways in which narratives around Black life are backgrounded. I was looking at Watteau’s The Music Party (ca. 1718), yesterday. There’s a man tuning a lyre and there’s a family or procession of folks; to the right of him is a dog, and then to the right of that dog is a Black child. And I was thinking about the descending value to the right and the ascending value to the left. There’s a kind of evaluation. And I think a lot about reevaluating, bringing things to the forefront that seem so irrelevant. Like, a sunken chair is evidence of our having worn it out. And I think there are many ways that that can be distributed across relationships, projected onto the ways that we understand relationships. Even as I’m interested in utilizing the scaffolding of historical art compositions or approaches to representation, to portraiture, there’s nothing fully decided yet, except that there are things that have value that should be put forth, I think, for those who care about them.
Rail: It’s making me think about the detail. There’s a scholar, Alexandra Vazquez, who wrote Listening in Detail, and a lot of her theorization around the detail is that it reveals and refuses at the same time: you’re invited to ponder it, but you also can’t quite get to the bottom of what it’s doing because it’s not supposed to be the explanation for the whole thing. There are so many fascinating details in your work. I was looking at the Batman poster on the wall in Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!) (2020). You were talking about the grooves in the chair. I’m just thinking about what kind of work it does to witness that kind of attention to living being portrayed or being depicted? I think it indicates the fullness of the lives of the people that you’re painting.
Packer: I was listening to you in a podcast talking about the absorption of knowledge through the flesh and I’m thinking about consequence. The objects around us seem neutral until they’re activated. The scissors are just sitting, unless you pick them up and you cut; there can be great consequential action, or, I don’t know, everything isn’t inevitable. I think about detail as indicating that there’s the potential for something to be activated, something to move. A painter, a mentor of mine, Dona Nelson, has this painting in the Met’s collection. There’s a table and a newspaper and there’s a serrated saw, just positioned right next to the edge. She talked about cutting out of the edge of the painting, that the saw could do that work. And it got me really excited to think about painting something within an image that could also affect that image.
Rail: I love that; it’s getting back to the aliveness. It also speaks to the interesting temporalities that are happening in the work too. I was reading what you were saying about drawing, that you like it because of the speed of getting things down and that it can be in this sort of unfinished state. But your paintings, too, make me feel as though we’re catching people in the middle of something; we don't know what’s going to happen next really. I’ve been thinking a lot about Black temporality lately, and so often it’s weighted with this tether to enslavement. We have all of these historical violences that are perpetually re-lived, but I think your paintings capture a pause, a kind of possibility.
Packer: In the paintings I want to take out almost all movement, like all physical movement, and then add a twitch, or a line, like an articulation of discomfort. I think that there are just things that have to be represented as unknowable. But I think about The Last Supper when Christ tells everyone that something is going to happen to him, and Judas is so struck that he knocks over the salt, but you don’t see it in the painting, right? In the DaVinci, the salt is just knocked over. Something has just happened and will forever have just happened, and we don’t get to see the after. There are moments in paintings where we don’t really know when or where. I’m very intrigued by that because it’s so rare. This, I sometimes think, it’s like none of your fucking business. There’s something really exciting about the unknowable that feels tied to protecting folks in the work. It’s essential because I know that there is a desire for reduction by people who don’t understand the consequences of Blackness in their world who will interpret it, and they won’t be honest about the interpretation. They’ll say, I get it, I see, I understand, but they don’t. I’d rather just tuck things away. I’d also like to not be driven by fear. But I also know that people who know the coding aren't kept outside of the work, so I have to trust that a little bit too. There’s also a great cost. I feel like the paintings end up being quiet and there are moments of great silence.
Rail: In that protectiveness, there’s also a demonstration of great intimacy with the people that you’re painting. But it also produces you as vulnerable in this other way, even though you’re not depicted, there’s an active interaction between you and the sitter, so you’ve made yourself vulnerable to them in a particular way. I think that’s part of the quietness that you’re talking about or part of the well of feelings that are not necessarily depicted or should be available for anybody else. But it’s just interesting to think about seeing one part of a dialogue, but the other part is implied in an interesting way.
Packer: I feel extremely vulnerable in the work. Partially because of my experiences in school with folks who identified as white or see themselves as white, who I thought ran from beauty and vulnerability. There was always something mitigating, like irony. Part of the quietness, too, is if someone sits for a painting, I understand that there’s a power dynamic that I choose how generous or how unkind to be to this person, how much I want it to look like them, how much I want them to be gorgeous, or feel accessible or be sensual, or, you know, those are choices that I make. It’s nothing neutral in that, I understand that there’s authorship. And, again, consequence. I also sometimes feel like I paint myself a little bit out of the painting too, that I want to have a respectful distance from that power. There are a lot of portraits that I haven’t finished, or failed, or I thought were too vulnerable for the sitter too, so I’ve never shown.
Rail: It must be a very delicate line. I really love what you’re saying about beauty too. The paintings are really beautiful. [Laughter]. The beauty that I am identifying in the paintings feels so delicate, and vulnerable. I want it to unfurl in people’s minds, to have people sit in front of the paintings and occupy all the corners of their brain. Christina Sharpe talks about beauty as an important part of world making for Black people, not only in terms of acts of mourning, but as an act of resistance.1
Packer: One of the things that feels most vulnerable about beauty is that you’re just putting it on the line: the fact that you think that this is the best looking, best performing version of a thing. And I think for people who see themselves as not Black, not POC or not Other, it’s a slippery slope. There is a potentially problematic correlation between beauty and power, which is why I think people resist it a little bit. I don’t know. But for me, it’s not beauty without criticality. Most of the paintings are made through an undoing. Things are painted in and then they’re scraped down a lot, or they’re wiped down, or they’re fudged around. I will press a piece of paper to what I want to get rid of. If I walk through a museum, and I look at a painting from 1880 to 1920, what museums might present as beauty feels familiar and I resist it. Whatever beauty is earned through that resistance is hard fought for; there are far faster and easier ways to get to my images if I were just trying to make a straightforward picture of a person or a bouquet of flowers or something. But I do think that housed in that doubt or resistance is essential emotional information. That’s where I have to believe part of the beauty sits. I think the works are very solemn, too. They feel really weighted for me and tied to sorrow. There was a time when I think people interpreted the work as me being a Sunday painter, like I was painting portraits and painting flowers. And then suddenly, I painted a cop and they were like, “Oh, she’s realized that she’s a raced person.” And everything sort of shifted in the language around the work and felt more pointed.
Rail: There are two axes to think about: one, who is allowed to occupy a beautiful space, and two, the inaccessibility of that for POC—that beauty is superficial, that there are more important things to worry about. I feel like what you’re talking about is that beauty is also about having a stake in producing a perspective, and it requires a lot of bravery to be like, this is how I am seeing things, or this is how I’m feeling things. I wonder if beauty is also a way to understand why the paintings feel spiritual, or at least steeped in belief, to me.
Packer: I think people believe that beauty sits in opposition to criticality. People talk about beauty in relationship to artifacts, but no one really talks about chasing it or reaching for it. Faith is easier to talk about in that you’re with someone, you walk away, and you believe that they still exist or that there are forces in your life that affect your everyday as a kind of spirituality. I think I’m trying to sort out the things that I know are evidentiary. That I can feel and touch, the details in the paintings, right? The scissors, whatever. And then the things that feel more powerful and unresolved, but impactful. Belief is something I’m still sorting out. It’s so important to the practice to have a dedicated set of things that, I mean, I am happy to name. Painting matters in the end, but it is not commensurate with a life lived. It’s barely commensurate with a moment. We know that from photography, that photography can’t do the explaining of all the things, documentary can’t do it, we know that there’s something missing. And I’ve been trying to read about biomythography and there's not a lot out there.
Rail: I don’t know that people other than Audre Lorde use that word. [Laughter]
Packer: It’s such an important part of how I think a lot of Black and brown and POC and queer artists are making things—this intersection of mythology, biography, and history.
Rail: I am curious what you’re doing with biomythography. Because paintings are beautiful, but they also are so feeling, and what are the languages that we have to talk about feelings? They’re not only emotional. I keep thinking about the different intensities at stake, even within one canvas. It’s not like you just get one feeling, you move through, and I’m sure you know, depending on where you are, and I feel like spirituality is one of those things, but to think about Lorde, you could also [Laughs] talk about this quality in relation to the erotic, right? Which I think probably goes back to vulnerability.
Packer: I gave that essay to my students, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” and it took a very specific few students in one class to kind of understand the erotic as a non-sexual expression. But I think the idea that I extracted at the core was that there’s a measurement, there’s a knowing of energy that some people can balance externally. And I thought, Oh, well, folks who are sociopathic, or who, as Toni Morrison might say have a neurotic prejudice, those are people that I don’t know if I want to see their erotic core. Sounds really great if you believe in people being good at the center, but I don’t know that I do. Yeah, but I think one of the reasons I was excited to talk to you is that I feel like in my work I’m very, very committed to thinking about queerness, thinking about sexuality and sensuality, but they’re not things that are physically activated. I think the conflation of sexuality and sex is not something that you’re going to see in the paintings. I’m interested in pointing to the flirtation, or the pleasure. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthe talks about these distinct figures, like the man who, at the strip club, goes up to the stage and throws all the money on stage to get the woman to undress quickly. He’s like, hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry. And then there’s the person who, like, sees a woman walking and, you know, the cuff of her sweater lifts up, or you see a sliver of her stomach and, there’s this great excitement. And we know both of those things. Like, I know if I’m not wearing a bra or something, and someone sees me and they’re like, you know. It’s like having a really intense reaction to something that is already knowable and also isn’t the same thing as nudity. I think a lot about that sort of range of expression, in terms of excitement, and the erotic as a non-sexual experience.
Rail: It makes me think about a different kind of work that the detail is doing. I think its revelation of an intimacy does work at queerness because it gestures towards a relationship that the viewer, unless that viewer is you or the sitter, will not have access to. Queerness can function as what is hidden. And then there is also the way the work translates intensities. I’m really interested in these shifts of intensities—especially when thinking about your use of monochrome, which invites me to think about whether there is an erotic quality to your application of paint onto the canvas. It signals a different type of attention to me and a different sensuality. I’m also really interested in the difference between the giant canvases and the tiny ones. To me that also feels very queer and kind of like activating another kind of eroticism; the different scales really do shift orientation…
Packer: Color variations are ways of articulating difference quickly; it’s like, this is yellow, this is blue. Historically maybe a cadmium would be more expensive than a French ultramarine or something. You can look at a painting and maybe understand what resources were available at that time, that place and the person who commissioned it. And scale, right, like more money, larger work, or whatever. I think the monochrome is a way of breaking that hierarchy and saying, all this stuff is actually made of the same material. Like if my sight is the color, then how do I distinguish between this thing and that thing? If I really want to distinguish between those two things, I have to work very hard materially to articulate that. Whether this thing is scraped down, whether I put down a wash, and then I wipe something in, it’s actually the color of the gesso, whether it’s present or absent. And those are very particular choices. It makes the difference more urgent. There’s this exhausting sometimes push and pull between wanting to imagine a thing and wanting to paint my experience of my eyes running across something, understanding the depth of something.
For example in the painting An Exercise in Tenderness (2017), consider the small figure in the officer-like uniform. I had made many drawings and I had started to make a painting. Often I’ll start painting on multiple canvases, and they’re all different sizes. Anyone who has sat in the studio knows I’ll just start pulling canvases out and I’ll start the painting and be like, No, that’s not the right size. Oh, no, that’s not the right size. That’s not the right size. Often I’ll have some squiggles on multiple canvases before I choose. And that painting got smaller and smaller. It was meant to be a much larger work, but I couldn’t bear to look at it in the studio. It felt too haunting. As soon as I started, I was like, I can’t have that figure in here that large. I think the ways in which we’re confronted by something feel very emotive. I’m interested in getting up to a painting like a van Eyck and not obsessing over the detail but being excited by or letting myself be moved by what could feel transportive. Like this feeling that I’m looking at a person, two inches tall. But I really feel like I’m looking at someone. And then I go into a room with a really large figure and I feel like I’m being confronted in a different way. The scale stuff is important because power differs for each image. It’s something that Matisse talked about a lot and it’s something I hope is felt in the work. I try to make the work the size I feel like it needs to be made. In a way that it’s not meant to be repeated. So even if there’s multiple versions, like the For James painting, there are four or five versions of that painting and they’re all different scales and they’re all different sizes; their range is open. And I don’t think that they were all equally successful to me as potent images. Also, again, hierarchically, I think people, institutions, get fixated on these massive works. It’s like there’s an inevitability to a practice, you’re making works and then time passes and ambition is articulated through scale. I think some images necessitate space. A Lesson in Longing (2019) is about 12 feet, and when I went to see it hung in the biennial I was like, it needs five, six more feet. Or Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, and I thought, Oh, it’s gotta go to the ceiling. If the figure stood up, they would be taller than the whole room. But I need that distance of the air from the fan pushing downward. It’s often a felt thing, those decisions. And sometimes when I feel like something’s really important I make it tiny, tiny. I have a real emotional relationship to those decisions, too. Once, I put up a large piece of paper to make this massive funerary bouquet, it was like six by eight feet or something, and I was like, this is ridiculous. I can’t possibly entertain my emotional relationship to this effectively; I can’t manage it. I think it’s exhausting to be that attentive to not just homogenize decisions, like all the paintings are about this size, or they’re all about this worth. And for a time with the drawings and paintings, I wanted the small paintings to sit in great opposition to the larger work. I would’ve loved for people to think that the small paintings are far more important than the large paintings. And when I came to painting, I was really interested in these macho Ab Ex painters—big paintings like Rothko’s. I love James Rosenquist. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really exciting for me in that work. But it’s also sometimes counterintuitive. There’s this Rilke quote where he says, “Everything one writes when they’re young is screaming and who thinks the scream should have been screamed any differently?”
Rail: What you’re saying is reminding me of our conversation about spirituality; it’s about feeling what the thing is, and then giving it space. I can imagine that would be totally exhausting, because that's a lot of attention. I keep thinking about the Chloë Bass quote from her installation in St. Nicholas Park last year, “how much of love is attention?”
Packer: Yeah, absolutely. The bell hooks essay that got printed in the book for Serpentine, “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination” talks about the distance between Black folks as objective or subjective, like that experience of being hands at a table, floating around, and then going home to your family and being like, Oh, this is the information that I learned from people who saw me as a shadow or who saw me as a set of gloves. There’s an imbalance of knowledge earned or received.
Rail: I guess the follow-up is thinking about attention and care as their own forms of knowledge.
Packer: Paintings are evidentiary in that way. The painting is proof of everything you did to it, like footsteps in the snow or something. There are some paintings where I got really scared or some paintings I wasn’t even sure I was okay, or there are other paintings where I was like, fuck it. That evaluation, I think, is essential to how I look at images, how I interpret why we would or would not be in images or why our images matter.
Rail: But it also strikes me that when you’re talking about the paintings as sort of providing evidence of everything that’s been done to them, it feels like that’s also a different type of vulnerability to have that displayed as like a thing.
Packer: I think often about the trajectory of artists and what happens to their work over time. For young artists, often the works are packed full of different references, things that feel very conflicting or they don’t add up, the weave is uneven. And then as the language develops, things get emptied out. Sometimes there’s a flattening, both conceptually and technically. So, artists become more concise sometimes. I think a lot about artists like Nina Chanel Abney or Kerry James Marshall or Kara Walker, what their relationship to conciseness over a few years or many years looks like?
Rail: On the writerly side, it feels like a similar thing sort of happens—part of it is about gaining confidence, not feeling beholden to speaking to everybody and then as your career shifts, you’re like, I know what I want to say, and my audience will find me.
Packer: I was thinking about that podcast again, where you’re talking about Mickalene Thomas’s Origin of the Universe. And you described a work of art as “an occasion.” Which I thought was a really, really important distinction from the ways that I think people think of works of art as the shadow of a culture. The occasion could be for the artists or for the viewer and it isn’t over. The work is visited physically or in one’s mind; so we don’t know the breadth of the occasion actually. I really like thinking about that a lot, and thinking about, again, the consequences of being able to sit with, to give attention to what the occasion is presenting, to an extent.
Rail: I’m interested in the relationship between form and engagement and what at any moment you’re being invited to feel with the artwork. Based on any number of things, like your personal history or institutional specifics. What’s the difference between seeing something at Sikkema Jenkins versus the Whitney, and where was I two, three years ago, mentally. Those are all things that are part of this encounter, right? It almost feels like it’s the beginning of a thought process. It’s not the residue of one. It’s a conversation because there’s always something unfinished.
Packer: That’s part of the title too. The ways in which history and trust and trauma and knowledge, or the lack thereof, interrupt, intersect with the experience you think you’re having. That’s sort of the thing about biomythography—where does legacy sit? It doesn’t sit in just any one place. Things that I feel responsible for are also changing. I can talk about Blackness and Black people, but there’s so much else in the room. I tell my students everything that happened in the painting is your fault—all the things that you didn’t see, you just didn’t see them, or you didn’t share them. I guess earlier I said that all that I say is most certainly not all that I know, but the paintings make you feel that way. There’s some truth in it, too. I’m thinking about fiction: when we’re allowed levels of fiction and when there’s an expectation of biography only.
Rail: In biomythography, there’s power in not only fictionalizing but making bigger; it’s supposed to be a grand story. And there’s an audacity in that and also the expectation of an audience. I guess you can make a myth, but if no one else is bearing witness to it [Laughter] I’m not sure what it’s doing.
Packer: Isn’t that it, right? To bear witness legitimizes a thing, you know, like that Walter Scott video, that cop did not think anyone was watching.
- Christina Sharpe, “Beauty Is A Method,” e-flux journal, December 2019.