Jennifer Packer: The Heavy Lightness of Black Breath
Renowned Black feminist theorist of visual culture and contemporary art, Tina M. Campt, recounts her time suspended in the immersive paintings of Jennifer Packer visiting the exhibition The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing at Serpentine and The Whitney Museum of American Art
My first encounter with the work of Jennifer Packer was almost an accident. I was visiting Serpentine on a sun-drenched summer day, on my first post-pandemic visit to London. I had come to see an exhibition on display in the North Gallery, and being so close, it felt wrong not to wander over to the other side of Kensington Gardens to see what was on display at the South Gallery. When I saw Packer’s name at the entrance, I remembered an invitation earlier in the year to engage the artist’s work. At the time, I was racing to meet a deadline for submitting my book manuscript, which meant I was politely declining any and all requests. But as soon as I stepped into the gallery, I realised that had been a deeply regrettable mistake. When I visited The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing a few months later at the Whitney Museum in New York, it confirmed that error with resounding effect. These two bookending events transformed an accidental encounter into a serendipitous gift.
He sits swaddled in a crimson red hoodie that blazes like an ember through the center of the canvas.
He rests on an abstracted structure that, from one angle, supports him above a golden floor.
From another angle, it appears to suspend him above the flow of a molten river.
But his gaze is tranquil. Directed downward, it is calm yet searching.
It expresses both respite and affirmation through an opacity that seems both practiced and protected.
The luminous hues of Packer’s paintings stop you in your tracks, then pull you in with gravitational force. While visiting the exhibition, I found myself orbiting them rotationally, navigating other visitors in the gallery as I attempted to position myself at multiple angles in relation to each work. Standing at a distance, hovering as close as the guards would allow, or wandering from end to end along a canvas to observe their texture and detail — I was captivated both by how light illuminated the works as well as the almost magical ways they appeared to emit their own forms of light. It is a play of light heightened by the artist’s predilection for painting in monochrome; a choice that amplifies her uncanny ability to use multiple gradations of a single colour in tandem with the creation of negative space in canvases that seem to transcend the two-dimensionality of painting.
Deep crimsons, sultry yellows, eerie greens, vibrant pinks — Packer’s iridescent colour palette suffuses her paintings and directs patterns of light toward viewers in ways that solicit a depth of feeling and an intensity of presence. Echoing the title of the exhibition, they are intensities that are not confined to the eyes: they are spatial and sonic intensities as well. They demand our presence and that we direct our attention to the visual frequencies at which they resonate in and among us. I have infamously argued that to embrace the full impact of visual culture, we must attend to it not merely through sight, but through additional sensory registers like sound and touch. While my invitation to ‘listen to images’ was initially addressed to film and photography, Packer’s canvases create equally multisensory and multidimensional encounters.
Flowers adorn a desk in a vanishing vessel.
A dissipating typewriter sits idle before it.
Loaded with a sheet of paper awaiting prose, its keys punctuate the canvas.
A painted simulacrum of a photographic portrait peeks out from behind the paper.
Hovering in the foreground, a figure sits on a chair engulfed by a saffron halo.
Her brown legs and hands seem to pierce the canvas and enter the room, while the rest of her body recedes into her golden halo.
It shields her like a protective ghost.
As a scholar of photography, I have spent much of my career probing and problematising the limits and possibilities of lens-based media. Yet as unlikely as it might seem, there is a hauntingly photographic quality that emerges in Packer’s paintings. It is not a question of indexical immediacy or verisimilitude that links her painted portraits to photography. Rather, it is her ability to reproduce both the alchemy and the aura of photography. In Packer’s paintings, figures emerge with an illusiveness that mimics photographic developing techniques, albeit rendered through paint and pencil. They are canvases that function like the stop-bath chemical interaction of developing fluids that can fix a subject barely coming into view. In doing so, they create densely affective works that merge painting and drawing — a signature feature of Packers’ practice that she executes with subtle and striking effects. It is a practice that allows her to bring subjects into partial view and suspend them in a simultaneous state of translucent visibility and protected obscurity. Here the artist mobilises the intensity of her palette to envelope her subjects (friends and chosen family with whom she has forged a connection) in a protective aura of colour that becomes a veil of opacity that shields them from the probing gaze of outsiders.
Two ephemeral figures gaze at us from a fuchsia-coloured canvas.
Unlike the others, one is quite literally veiled.
They stand erect with eyes fixed in a penetrating stare.
They hold their chin high as the pinnacle of their proud posture.
Following the line of their arm downward, their brown hand rests on a slender thigh.
Below it, their garment dissolves into a skirt outlined in dripping lines of paint.
Its fringes flutter buoyantly around thin brown calves, white socks and nondescript shoes.
Alongside them in the fuchsia cloud squats a dark-skinned man in traffic light green shorts.
Together, they hover between presence and absence, visibility and opacity.
Packer describes this series of works as created from a place of mourning: the mourning of the serial loss of Black lives sacrificed too often and too soon. Her titles gesture repeatedly to those losses: Say Her Name, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!), Laquan, Eric, The Body Has Memory, Absence: A Condition, A Lesson in Longing. Yet while the space of mourning is pervasive in The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing, it also creates an opening. It is an opening I would describe (echoing Packer’s own eponymously titled work) as (a) breathing room — a space of clearing and cleansing, of attunement and (re)orientation, of inhalation and exhalation, a space of aspirating Black breath.
Its hues are not the warm saffron, crimson or fuchsia of other works.
It is bathed in an unnerving tint of pale green.
It is a green I associate with a passive ooze, rather than the pulsations of life.
Its luminosity brings the prone Black body at the base of the canvas into stark relief.
His skin is not rendered in rich chestnut or mahogany.
The lifeless green penetrates both him and the chesterfield on which he lies.
One leg propped up, one extended, a bent arm dangles from the couch.
A table fan seems to whirr in the background, while a ceiling fan rotates above.
Together they make the temperature of the room and the temporality of Black breath, palpable.
An encounter with Jennifer Packer’s hypnotic paintings is an immersive experience. The scenes and spaces of Black breath depicted in her paintings exert a gravitational force that draws us into the precarity of Black domestic life. The domestic spaces and postures captured in these works would normally register rest or repose, but as she instructs us, ‘the eye is never satisfied with seeing'. But we do not just view them, we enter them, though not as portals of mastery, voyeurism or identification. We stand humbly alongside and before her subjects and the steady probing gazes they direct toward us. As they sit or stand, as they rest on or drape themselves over chairs, couches or stools, they engage viewers on their own terms swaddled in Packer’s glowing veils of colour. The domestic scenes she conjures are a world of objects and textures that signify the quotidian comforts of a home filled with family photos, puffy couches, vintage typewriters or irons, whirling fans. It is through these scenes that the artist allows us to witness the simultaneity of Black intimacy and Black vulnerability, and invites us to straddle the space that connects them. It is an invitation we must dare to accept and a terrain we must dare to traverse.
 King James Bible, 1769/2017, Ecclesiastes 1:8