Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!), 2020 Oil on canvas 300 x 438 cm 118 x 172.5 inches Private Collection. Courtesy the Artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York Photo: George Darrell

Jennifer Packer's Political Still Lifes & Intimate Portraits Centre Black lives

"My inclination to paint, especially from life, is a completely political one."

- Jennifer Packer

Text by Youssra Manlaykhaf & Róisín McVeigh

Get acquainted with the work of New York-based painter Jennifer Packer ahead of her major Serpentine exhibition, The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing, opening 5 December 2020. Book now.

From intimate portraiture centring contemporary Black lives to politically charged still lifes and an investigative use of drawing, Jennifer Packer’s work presents a tireless exploration of the power and potential of painting.

Jennifer Packer - Tia
Tia, 2017 Oil on canvas 99 x 63.5 cm 39 x 25 inches Collection of Joel Wachs Photo: Matt Grubb

Portraits

Combining observation, improvisation and memory, Packer paints intimate portraits of friends and family members—people she loves. Often captured at home or in their own space, her sitters appear casual and relaxed in their surrounding environment, sometimes even seeming to be a part of it.

“In my work, I really want to make sure that images are tied to a specific person or authentic identitythat it’s not just ‘anyone’ or superficial.” – Jennifer Packer

Jennifer Packer - Say Her Name
Say Her Name, 2017 Oil on canvas 121.9 x 101.6 cm 48 x 40 inches Private Collection. Courtesy the Artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York Photo: Matt Grubb

Flower Still Lifes

Packer started painting flowers from observation in 2012, originally as a respite between portraits. During a visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was inspired by French nineteenth-century painter Henri Fantin-Latour’s flower still lifes and his ability to imbue objects with emotion. Packer questioned: “How can a painting of a bouquet feel more compelling than a painting of a person? How do I feel the humanness of a thing?”

Her flower paintings began to embody the fragility of life just as her portraits embody a tenderness towards the lives she paints. Packer describes particular flower compositions as funerary bouquets and vessels of personal grief made in response to tragedies of state and institutional violence against Black Americans.

The Body Has Memory, 2018 Oil on canvas 152.4 x 121.9 cm 60 x 48 in Collection of Miyoung Lee & Neil Simpkins Photo:Jason Wyche

Centring Contemporary Black Lives

Much of Packer’s work is in dialogue with art history, recalibrating and interrogating an enduring white, colonial narrative. By centring contemporary Black lives and painting them with love and care, Packer reframes the traditions of portraiture and still lifes.

“I’m thinking about Black representation in portraiture… I’m thinking about walking through the Met and looking at the Rubens, or any other large paintings of that nature, which are about a decadence that was funded through procuring riches from other parts of the world in questionable ways.” – Jennifer Packer

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!), 2020 Oil on canvas 300 x 438 cm 118 x 172.5 inches Private Collection. Courtesy the Artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York Photo: George Darrell

Painting as Political

Through gestures both subtle and forthright, Packer’s work carries a political resonance.

“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.” – Jennifer Packer

Swim, 2011 Charcoal on paper 41.9 x 35.6 cm 16.5 x 14 inches 47.3 x 41 x 3.9 cm (framed) Private Collection. Courtesy the Artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York Photo: Jason Wyche

Drawing as Counter-Practice

Often created from memory, Packer’s drawings aren’t typically images that become paintings, but rather a kind of “counter-practice.” She is interested in using the medium as a way of arguing with a painting.

“Drawing is very rarely just a study for something. I want the drawing to be something that holds water and has weight on its own, has a gravity that painting can’t have, even in its fragility.” – Jennifer Packer

Watch the Exhibition Trailer

"My inclination to paint, especially from life, is a completely political one."

- Jennifer Packer

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