What is so striking about the painting of Jennifer Packer in her Whitney Museum exhibition is the way she handles the relationship between the ethereal and the physical and how she transitions between the two realms. In a previous interview the artist has said, “I don’t usually use the word ‘intuitive,’ but I feel like I flow between moments of observation and imagination.” In the work of The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing I can see her feeling her way through the premonitions and inklings that occur to her in the moment of making, and recognize that she’s made deliberate choices in response and I endorse almost every single one.
In the painting “Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!)” (2020) the corporeal world in certain moments becomes ephemeral, gauzy. A calf muscle goes alabaster white. A ceiling fan is caught mid-cycle, the whoosh of one of its arms arrested but leaving a chem trail, the other arm ghostly white again against a pink backdrop. This fan is primarily made recognizable by the bright white bulb at its center with the blades seeming like they have been set in motion and thereafter can only be glimpsed in short bursts of apprehension. There are actually three fans in the room, a fact which can only become evident after a long time looking at the image. The one in the middle, just above the reclining figure’s raised thigh is a box fan, its blades frozen in a blur of four blades held mid-stroboscopic effect so that I can’t tell in what direction they are turning. And the image of the fan is broken by an intervening milk carton so that the machine seems to float. Most everything in this room is tenuous, piecemeal, precarious.
The evocation of Breonna Taylor’s name in the title is key. It sounds like a cry out to her — seeking her, to find her wherever she has gone. This too is a remarkable choice. Think of all the images that have sought to recover Taylor, commemorate her, use her to represent a kind of regal Black womanhood, and utilize her as an emblem of the ongoing struggle of people of color to be recognized as other than a threat, especially by those empowered by the state to enforce the law. Amy Sherald’s portrait of Taylor re-presented her to a great deal of public fanfare with the painting featured on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the work itself sold under terms of joint ownership by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and by the Speed Museum in Louisville. But here, Packer has elected not to depict her, which suggests that the act of seeing is a process, with its sporadic and fragmentary apprehensions. “Now you see it; now you don’t” is not only the magician’s catchphrase; it is an accurate assessment of how seeing actually works for us. Thus at high speeds a car wheel seems to be spinning backward: Our brains fill in the information that escapes our eyes. With this painting Packer refuses the comfort of giving the viewer visual evidence of Taylor having been a fully present human being. She invokes a name without a corresponding body; she invokes an aporia, a loss.
Elsewhere in the show, Packer has created a reality in which people are shot through with technicolor and vividly alive such as “Carolina” (2011), “Chey” (2020), “Tia” (2017), but still on life support, and they might start coding any minute now. Will the patient survive? Will the emergency team be able to resuscitate in time? Thinking of the painting in this way seems an apt metaphor for the precarity of the lives of Black people in the United States. Dona Nelson, a former teacher of Packer at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture, says in her essay in the exhibition catalogue, “In many of the portraits, Jennifer’s subject is the presence of a person on the threshold of absence.” And the artist attends to those who have crossed over. Indeed, Packer’s inclusion here of several still lifes containing flowers are foliage that are, as critic Adrian Searle concludes in his review of the original Serpentine show, meant to honor the lives that have been lost, both the named and unnamed.
But this show has more to say. In the artist’s seesawing between observation and imagination she gives viewers opportunities for wonderment as well.
Look at the painting “A Lesson in Longing” (2019). I stood looking at it and then sat to look some more. It took at least a couple minutes to notice that a cat lies on something in the upper left corner, beneath what might be a tapestry, on top of what might be a picture frame or a television screen. The pictorial elements waver between being heavily substantial like the male figure’s feet, and being gossamer, like the legs of the woman who appears to be wearing a niqab, and also being intermittent such as the cat in the foreground that might indeed be a cat, or a swirl of calico yarn. Most everything again, is unsure, a maybe, might be there, might not be, could fulfill your hopes, might leave them by the side of the road. And this is the ultimate prize of this show, from piece to piece my looking is rewarded by moment to moment discoveries. And by my constitutive seeing these figures’ being becomes meaningful to me.
The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing makes me think not only the rewards of seeing, but also the responsibility to do so. What if those officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department who stormed Breonna Taylor’s apartment firing indiscriminately had stopped and looked and waited until they could actually see her? It is clear in that case that seeing made the difference between life and death. I have to ask: What is my responsibility to see? Who will hold us accountable when we fail in this very basic duty?
Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street), the Meatpacking District, Manhattan, through April 17. It originated at the Serpentine Gallery curated by Melissa Blanchflower and Natalia Grabowska. The presentation at the Whitney is organized by Rujeko Hockley, Jane Panetta and Ambika Trasi.