The intimate, politically charged paintings of Philadelphia-born artist Jennifer Packer examine the contemporary Black American experience, while acknowledging the dynamics of power and ethics of representation tied to portraiture in painting's wider genre histories.Read More
Jennifer Packer gained a BFA at Temple University's Tyler School of Art in 2007. In 2012, she graduated with an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale University.
Packer is based in New York, where she is Assistant Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design's painting department.
Jennifer Packer's works reflect a considered exploration of representation, race, and art history, subverting genres including portraiture, still life, and interiors.
Composing her images through observation, memory, and improvisation, Packer paints in oils with a loose, expressive style. Her palette is typically restrained to a few feature tones which establish the mood of her images, as seen in the ochres of the portraits Tia (2017) and April, Restless (2017), or the pinks and reds in The Body Has Memory (2018).
The artist's selective focus is revealed through her deliberation over detail and the density of her paint application within each work. For James III (2013) presents a carefully painted, detailed figure, curled up on the suggestion of a mattress executed in a thin, pale blue wash. Texture, line, and form is suggested rather than defined, lending the composition a casual immediacy while reflecting the intimate nature of Packer's relationship to her subject.
Alongside her paintings, Packer explores the potential for drawing as a 'counter-practice'—intending for her drawings to operate independently rather than as preparatory studies. Mining the fragility and immediacy of the medium, Packer uses charcoal to render images that further examine the dynamics between subject and artist.
Packer first began painting flowers while studying in 2012. Though seemingly apolitical, the bouquets offer an outlet for expressing grief, and an attempt to reconcile loss and despair through the decorative function of painting. Say Her Name (2017) responded to the death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman who died in police custody in Texas in 2015, and is widely believed to have been murdered by the state. The funerary bouquet is politicised as a metaphor for the Black body, or for institutionalised racial violence.
On the bouquet paintings, Jareh Das writes for Ocula Magazine: '... Rather than repeat the viral spectacle of Black death, bodies are replaced metaphorically with bouquets symbolising the cyclicality and transience of life.'
Acutely aware of the privileges and politics of representation, Packer depicts her own family and friends in her portraits—their casual, relaxed poses speaking to the artist's closeness to her subject. Packer also recognises the importance of setting and the spaces people inhabit, which serve as contextual clues that broaden the dimensions of the figures illustrated.
Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!) (2020) presents a pale-mustard interior inhabited by a figure lying across a couch, with objects including an iron, indoor plant, stovetop, and pedestal fan distinguishable amidst the sparsely defined space. The title references Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was shot dead in her Louisville home in 2020 during a botched police raid.
Through painting, Packer fleshes out the social and emotional complexities of contemporary Black lives, which are so often diminished in media representation. She states: 'My inclination to paint, especially from life, is a completely political one. We belong here. We deserve to be seen and acknowledged in real time. We deserve to be heard and to be imaged with shameless generosity and accuracy.'
Packer's major 2021 solo exhibition presented at the Serpentine in London, The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing, spoke to the artist's thinking about the limitations and complications of visual evidence, and the problematic nature of interpretation.
Featuring 34 works produced between 2011 and 2020 and spanning portraiture, interiors, still life, and drawing, the show illustrated a humanised, nuanced insight into contemporary Black American lives, countering the often violent and reductive media narratives around Black America.
In an interview published on the Serpentine website, Packer states: 'I'm interested in the kind of leaps of faith that we take when we look at pictures, or paintings, or video. I like that with painting you can create this other narrative which can overwrite the memories that you have. There's something really wonderful about the limitations of image making as it pertains to the subjectivity of humans.'
Packer was the recipient of awards, fellowships, and residencies including the John Kock Award in Art, American Academy of Arts and Letters (2021); Hermitage Greenfield Prize (2020); Nancy B. Negley Prize, American Academy in Rome (2020); Visual Arts fellow, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts (2014—2016); Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant (2013); Artist in Residence, The Studio Museum in Harlem (2012—2013); and Robert Schoelkopf Memorial Traveling Fellowships, Yale University (2011).
Jennifer Packer's work has been the subject of numerous solo institutional and commercial gallery exhibitions, and she has participated widely in group exhibitions globally too.
Solo exhibitions include Every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep, Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles (2021); The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing, Serpentine Galleries, London (2020), travelled to Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2021); Quality of Life, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York (2018); Tenderheaded, The Renaissance Society, Chicago (2017) and Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Waltham (2018); Breathing Room, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (2015); Treading Water, Corvi-Mora, London (2015).
Select group exhibitions include 100 Drawings from Now, The Drawing Center, New York (2020); (Nothing But) Flowers, Karma Gallery, New York (2020); Fine Art Work Center: The New Provincetown Print Project, GAA Gallery, Provincetown (2020); Whitney Biennial 2019, Whitney Museum of American Art (2019); She Persists, A Century of Women Artists in New York, Grace Mansion, New York (2019); Black Refractions: Selections from The Studio Museum in Harlem, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco (2019); Young, Gifted, and Black: The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art, Osilas Gallery at Concordia College New York, Bronxville (2019); afinidades afetivas [affective affinities], São Paulo Art Biennial (2018).
Jennifer Packer's work is held in collections including The Art Institute of Chicago; Jimenez-Colon Collection, Ponce, Puerto Rico; and The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.
Misong Kim | Ocula | 2021