New York-based artist Jennifer Packer creates expressionistic portraits, interior scenes, and still life paintings and drawings. She has gained recognition for her works in which relaxed figures are depicted in such a way that they seem to almost merge into the background. Her enigmatic, painterly style consists of a loose line and brush stroke, scraping, scumbling, and use of both vibrant and limited color palettes. Packer often uses one main color in rich tones for a single work. She paints each canvas over a long time, returning to rework the surface and “undoing” the image until a sumptuous balance is struck. She often uses friends and family members as her models.
Packer was born in Philadelphia but lived with her grandparents for most of her life in South Jersey. She received her B.F.A. from the Tyler School of Art, Temple University in 2007 and her M.F.A. from Yale University in 2012. She is on the faculty of Rhode Island School of Design.
In 2006 when she was an undergraduate, one of her professors pushed her to go to Rome to learn what it would be like to be a black person abroad. She experienced some racism and isolation and was even kicked several times by a woman in a cafe in Rome. She drew inward until she saw Caravaggio’s paintings of St. Matthew. “I connected with the images immediately and felt changed. If these paintings . . . could make me feel that life is worth living, then perhaps I might make something that could affect someone else in the same way. It’s rare for me to feel like there’s a haven pinpointing where I am fully recognized as an artist, a queer woman of color . . . Caravaggio seemed dejected and I thought: I know what that’s like.”
Packer’s first solo institutional exhibition “Tenderheaded” was shown at Chicago’s Renaissance Society 2017. It consisted of figurative paintings that paired portraits of African Americans with images of funerary bouquets. Packer has been painting flowers for about five years, but now they address a specific loss.
One of these flower paintings, the still life funeral bouquet “Say Her Name” addresses the death of Sandra Bland. Bland was a 28 year old African American woman arrested for not using a turn signal while driving in Texas. While Bland showed signs of instability and depression, this was ignored. Bland was found hanging in her cell three days later. The social media campaign, from which Packer derives this work’s title, demanded public recognition of this young woman’s death. Packer’s tribute to her avoids portraiture in favor of flowers and green foliage, which turn somber as they merge with the color black.
Packer also employs the convention of painting a picture within a picture. This technique can be found in “April, Restless” where a reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Pieta” is seen behind the sitter and in “Graces” which shows a blurry image of two people lounging. “Graces” has a dark brown line which reveals and distinguishes the faces and figures from the rich sienna that permeates the entire surface. Defined in lead white is the distinctive border of a Polaroid photograph showing the same reddish-brown that surrounds it.
Packer was an Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2012- 2013. In 2013, she received a Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant. She was a visual art fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA 2014-2015.
She has participated in group exhibitions in the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston in 2014; art galleries in Berlin, New York, and Chicago in 2015; and the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2017. She has had solo exhibitions in galleries in New York and London in 2015 and in the Renaissance Society, Chicago in 2017.
She is having a solo show “Every Shut Eye Ain’t Sleep” at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art through February 21, 2022, which will consist of 25 intimate figurative and still-life paintings and drawings, including two works in tribute to Laquan McDonald, a Black 17-year-old who was fatally shot by a white Chicago police officer.
Additionally, she is having the largest survey of her work thus far, “Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art through April 2022. One of these paintings, “Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!)” measures roughly 10 by 14 feet. It shows a man sleeping on a bullet-riddled sofa in a room whose objects show that children also live there. This tableau-like setting memorializes 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, who was killed by the police. Here Packer only references the young woman’s story, combining the figurative with portraiture, still life, and some abstraction.