visual artist jennifer packer’s love of black bodies

December 10, 2018
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In the opening essay of the catalog that accompanied Jennifer Packer’s first solo exhibit, Tenderheaded, the curator, Solveig Øvstebø of Chicago’s Renaissance Society, recounts meeting the artist and asking her who the people in her paintings were? Packer’s reply was, “Well, they’re the bodies I love.” Jennifer Packer’s figurative paintings have always made her love of Black bodies clear; it’s an admiration clearly on display throughout the work included in Quality of Life, her second solo show at Manhattan’s Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, up through January 19th.  

Jennifer Packer, “The Body has Memory” (2018). Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches (c/o Sikkema Jenkins)

Representation has always mattered to the Philadelphia-born, 34 year-old artist. A Temple University Fine Arts undergrad, with an MFA from Yale, and an artist residency at the Studio Museum of Harlem under her belt, Packer is plenty versed in the history of figurative painting that ignored Black people as subjects. And the cultural meaning of that disregard.

Jennifer Packer, “Laquan (1)” (2016-18), oil on canvas, 60×50 inches (c/o Sikkema Jenkins)

“For many of us on the margins, we have barely seen bodies like ours represented in any fair, extensive, historical sense,” Packer said in a 2016 interview with Callaloo, A Journal of African Diaspora Arts & Letters. “My inclination to paint bodies, 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.” She cites contemporary masters — specifically, Kerry James Marshall (who contributed a conversation with Packer to the Tenderheaded catalog) and Nina Chanel Abney — as models for representing Black figures on a canvas, “where the image and content are insistent, and the stakes feel high.”  

Jennifer Packer, “Heir Apparent” (2018), charcoal and pastel on paper, 64×48 inches (c/o Sikkema Jenkins)

Like its predecessor, Quality of Life is full of Black bodies and faces, predominantly on canvases painted with oils, though there are a number of charcoal sketches as well. Packer moves fluidly between representation and abstraction, from a hard direct line and solid color (she has an incredibly emotive way of drawing hands and mouths), to washes of paint and empty space. The overall notion of how she tackles these portraits barely changes, even as the size of her canvases fluctuates wildly — the biggest pieces at 60”x48”, the smallest at just 10”x8”.

Jennifer Packer, “A Conversation” (2018), oil on canvas 12×6 inches (c/o Sikkema Jenkins)

When Packer’s visualized subjects become objects, moving from people to flower still-lifes, the abstraction in her work grows. Some of these paintings of bouquets are cast in darker tones, bringing a heavier energy. Others explode in color, or are set in more definitive lines. Yet, they too harken back to the bodies she loves, though ones she can no longer depict. One still-life diptych is named for Laquan McDonald, murdered by the Chicago police in 2014, and the flowers may well be his funeral arrangements. (Among Packer’s previous flower still-lifes was Say Her Name (2017) for Sandra Bland.)

Jennifer Packer, “Laquan (2)” (2017-18), oil on canvas, 60×48 inches (c/o Sikkema Jenkins)

What remains of a piece with her figures is the warmth of her palette, and a sense of personal comfort in the masterful way the subjects are presented: personal and personable, human and humane. The aesthetic beauty that balances realism and imagination, and the inherent, loving empathy of her visual creations, mix almost without almost.

Jennifer Packer, “Jess” (2018), oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches (c/o Sikkema Jenkins)

This connection is important to Packer. Speaking of the paintings she produced while at the Studio Museum (in 2012-13), she told Callaloo, that “people who saw [my] work there, who lived in or around Harlem, spoke about how they felt related to the people I was painting. I felt that the work was successful in that sense, that I was connected to people in a way that matters.” With Quality of Life, the bond seems to have only grown.

Jennifer Packer, “Eric” (2018), oil on canvas, 12×12 inches (c/o Sikkema Jenkins)

Jennifer Packer’s solo exhibit, Quality of Life, is up until January 19th, 2019 at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in Manhattan, New York City