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19 MAY – 22 AUGUST 2021

Serpentine Gallery, London

Reviewed by Lisa Goodrum

On a searingly hot June day, London’s Serpentine Gallery was effulgent and the colours in Jennifer Packer’s canvases grew more vibrant by the minute. The gallery had lain dormant during a Covid-enforced hiatus from December 2020 to May 2021, but I had finally made it to the second act of the New York artist’s lauded exhibition, The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing. Consisting of portraits of Packer’s artistic contemporaries like Jordan Casteel and Eric N. Mack, along with several flower paintings, the display centred the emotional and interior lives of Black subjects and confronted the art-historical conventions that have all too frequently stymied their representation. Within the exhibition space, voices were hushed and noise was stilled as if we visitors had accidentally dawdled into a place of worship. The religious ambience was apt, however, as this exhibition very much lay under a biblical shadow. The sacred text even supplied its title: ‘All things are full of labour, man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing’ (Ecclesiastes 1:8) and Packer’s body of work was a visual exegesis of that verse which she crafted into a meditation on the world in which she exists.

At 3 x 4.38 metres, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!) was the largest painting among the thirty-five that constituted the exhibition. Suffused with a sunshine yellow colour, the sprawling canvas appeared steeped in the same hazy glow that sat atop the grass in Kensington Gardens. In the top left-hand corner of this domestic scene, a window framed an intensely turquoise patch of sky where a bird soared freely, as if attempting to replicate the seeming placidity of the figure on the sofa. It was a common scene, and one that would be all too familiar to an audience of London’s young professionals, whose homes provide them with respite from the frenetic capital city in which they have chosen to live. On the kitchen counter behind the sofa, a carton of milk is perched or is perhaps teetering precariously on the furniture itself. The room is strewn with household appliances including an iron and a fan, indicating a tranquil mundanity and the omnipresence of heat. I wondered whether the young man is too hot to sleep and the fan has lured him into the living area where he is attempting to circumvent the sultry air.

The painting’s title derives from another Bible verse (Matthew 5:4) intended to reassure mourners that they will be comforted, and yet its subtitle simultaneously alerts viewers to the reality that even resting in one’s house while Black is dangerous. The painting’s titular subject, Breonna Taylor, and her boyfriend Kenneth Walker, were asleep in her house when they were awoken by Kentucky police breaking down the door during a narcotics investigation. After her boyfriend fired a warning shot, the officers returned fire and the young woman was hit by six bullets and died. Upon considering Breonna’s fate, the viewer cannot help but speculate whether Packer’s subject is really safe here and so an innocuous domestic scene becomes overshadowed by fear, suspicion and, ultimately, grief. It is unclear whether the young man is resting or sleeping, but his pose, with his head tilted back as if combing the ceiling for answers, implies that he is actually lying on his sofa overwhelmed by the police brutality that continues to plague his community. For him, the comfort promised by Packer’s biblical title seems elusive.

Subtly woven among Packer’s portraits were her flower paintings, all of which possess the verisimilitude that characterises her pictures of human subjects. Much has been made by critics and art historians alike of the similarities that these images share with sixteenth-century Dutch vanitas paintings. Those historical works harnessed the ephemerality of flowers to remind those who purchased them of both their mortality and the inconsequentiality of their worldly goods and pleasures. In Absence, A Condition, 2020, Jennifer Packer reinterprets this message for a twenty-first-century audience. The image’s background assumes an almost indigo hue, evoking a melancholic sky meandering towards dusk and the end of the day and within this diurnal inevitability lies the certainty that life itself will end: the precise message that Packer’s Dutch predecessors sought to convey. The latent finitude of the American artist’s flowers consolidates the idea of life’s brevity and ties that sentiment to a specifically Black and American location.

The bouquet of wildflowers sits against a dark blue background of rougher brushstrokes, while its crude and disorganised arrangement – the dark violet flowers facing towards the front and back of the canvas appear to be frantically scrabbling to its summit – speaks to a heightened emotional undercurrent, and when one considers the recent cataclysms that have shaken American society, the bouquet’s wild and unbounded form represents a primal and visceral grief that is impervious to articulacy. The impermanence of life is a point that has been made repeatedly clear to African Americans, but perhaps even more forcefully to a new generation who have witnessed their community’s brutalisation achieve rapid and unrelenting social media virality. For them, Packer’s flower painting acts more like a memento mori. It is not a reminder that ‘you have to die’ but an aide-memoire to the ever present rituals of mourning. The amethyst and violet bouquet is also reminiscent of the irises immortalised by Vincent van Gogh in 1889, and in what can be considered a subversion of his work, Packer updates art history to challenge her viewers’ previously comfortable relationship with flowers like this. She redefines the connection for a new generation struggling to process systemic racism and loss, and for whom the resulting absence is a condition they are still learning to bear.

Nowhere was this exhibition’s religious subtext more apparent than in Transfiguration, 2017, where the subject’s form appears to change as they transition into an ethereal state. In the biblical lexicon, ‘transfiguration’ refers to Christ’s appearance in radiant glory to the apostles Peter, James and John. Packer’s figure appears in a similarly heroic pose and with his arms raised he provokes comparisons with Christ and references the Black male body as a locus of suffering and pain. Writing in The Brooklyn Rail, Claire Phillips remarked that the figure’s hands are raised as if he is in supplication to the police. History, both recent and the more remote, has shown that in America, a Black man’s interaction with law enforcement can be fatal and Phillips’ interpretation is undoubtedly informed by Packer’s subtitle: He’s No Saint. Yet it remains ambiguous exactly what kind of man this picture captures and the artist has deliberately muddied her message so that our analysis is inconclusive. The marks on his flesh are reminiscent of stigmata while also redolent of flagellation; the streaks left by a sinner wanting to make amends.

In the lower half of the painting, the man’s torso is partially obscured by a block of egg-yolk yellow paint and the artist’s decision to disguise her subject’s anatomy jars against the largely hyper-figurative portraits that populate the rest of the exhibition. Gazing at the picture, I sensed that the subject’s lack of concrete physicality signifies the cultural tradition, and temptation, of viewing Black males as a homogenous group rather than distinct individuals. The torso is missing here because this is not a portrait of one Black man but an image acting as a synecdoche for the Black male in general. While the picture’s context may be unclear its interpretation is left to the viewer. One gallery-goer may describe him as a saint, but for another he will claim the role of sinner and I suspect that this is Packer’s point. Such labels, and their synonyms, are freely applied to Black men in life and death, thereby erasing the complexity of human behaviour that exists between these poles. Their reductive nature simplifies this group’s experiences and, in a specifically American context, helps to justify their mass incarceration and physical punishment at the hands of law enforcement. Yet, in her subject’s closed eyes and submissive pose, I argue that Packer instead chooses to capture his passage between saintliness and sinning, or his ‘transfiguration’, so that he occupies neither state. He is simply himself.

Within this final image lies the crux of this exhibition. Jennifer Packer paints Black people and reinserts them into a narrative over which they previously had no control. The suffering and loss upon which she touches, and directly refers to, is palpable but within the ensuing grief there is a reclamation of space and a strident determination to exist meaningfully within it: ‘We belong here. We deserve to be seen and acknowledged in real time. We deserve to be heard and imaged with shameless generosity and accuracy.’ In The Eye is Not Satisfied With Seeing, Jennifer Packer sates the viewer’s thirst for sensory knowledge while bearing witness to an alternative vision of it and, in doing so, she casts issues of race, representation and art history in an entirely different, and often dazzling, light.  

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