Jennifer Packer's Political Still Lifes & Intimate Portraits Centre Black lives
"My inclination to paint, especially from life, is a completely political one."
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.
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 identity—that it’s not just ‘anyone’ or superficial.” – Jennifer Packer
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.
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
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
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