Jennifer Packer at the Whitney in New York — paintings both decorative and profound

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Jennifer Packer’s paintings are exquisite enigmas, opening up perspectives of things unseen. The portraits, so immediate on first impact, quickly dissolve into layers of intricate strokes, then coalesce again. She hides limbs and blurs faces, asking viewers to complete the scene in their imaginations. In his world, people stand, sit, or crumble on the brink of disappearance, their presence heavy but fleeting. Enjoy me now, implore these works; Savoring the company of loved ones is also about mourning their loss.

Packer’s portraits, now on display at New York’s Whitney Museum in a dazzling solo show, are delightfully indulgently beautiful, a dangerous thing to be. The critical apparatus awards reputation points for exaggerated trauma, troubled self-examination, social or ideological criticism – not for the oiliness of the sun or the shine of a patterned sock. “What I hate”, Fairfield Porter wrote, “is the Puritan idea that light doesn’t matter, that pleasure dooms you to hell, that life is meaningless everyday.”

In the show, The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Packer first seduces and then challenges. Like Vuillard, Matisse and Bonnard, she dwells on the delight of painting and its luminous possibilities. Like them too, she tempers this sensuality with pain that floats just below the surface. Packer’s work is decorative and profound.

“Blessed are those who mourn (Breonna! Breonna!)” (2020) greets visitors at the entrance to the exhibition. Unframed and pinned to the wall like a poster in a college dorm, the monumental canvas opens into a yellow room, flooded with light and filled with particularly mundane objects that make it an Everyhousehold: a plant, a fan, a smoke detector, an iron, children’s drawings, a set of knives attached to a magnet. The furnishings are equally familiar, from the wood-grain kitchen cabinets to the tiled backsplash.

“Blessed are those who weep (Breonna! Breonna!)” (2020) by Jennifer Packer © Filip Wolak/Whitney Museum of American Art

One could take this for a bright and inviting domestic tableau at the magic hour, when the low sun creeps in through the windows. In a Bonnard idyll, the artist’s wife would be lying in the bath, haloed in purple and blue. Here, Packer gives us a shirtless black man lying on the sofa, his nose stretched up to the ceiling, a figure at rest or in mourning — impossible to say which.

This is not just any apartment; it’s the home of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old black woman police shot dead during a raid on the location in 2020. In the companion audio guide, Packer recounts the impact of crime scene photographs , the way this ordinary furniture gave him a sense of kinship with the victim. “I saw things that I recognized, things that I would have seen in my own apartment. I could almost materially confuse a period of my life with what I saw in his. I felt that sense of connection.

“The body has memory” (2018) by Jennifer Packer © Jennifer Packer. Photograph by Jason Wyche, courtesy Sikkema Jenkins/Corvi-Mora

She usually doesn’t trust the photos. For her, coming face to face with a subject provokes an alchemical reaction, a current that passes between the artist and the model, then jumps onto the canvas. For a first portrait, “Jordan” (2014), fellow Yale student – and now celebrated artist – Jordan Casteel posed in his studio for two days. Lying on the couch, she blends almost imperceptibly into the room, person and possessions merging in an apotheosis of amber and rose. “I mimic the environment, in the sense that I felt like I was becoming quite entwined with that space at that point,” Casteel recalls in the audio guide.

This kind of chameleonic act is necessarily a collaboration between observer and observed. Packer talked about the importance of camouflage, how it arranges objects and people to be inspected and conceals them at the same time. She sets the scene, introduces the actors and proceeds to eliminate the distinctions between them.

In the dreamlike “Lesson in Longing” (2019), a study in fuchsia, scarlet and magenta, she weaves a man and a woman into the shimmering atmosphere, obscuring their faces but meticulously dwelling on domestic details. Greenery sprouts from a few pots and a hanging plant shoots its tendrils in a rain of color. A purple cat curls up on a cabinet, and you can just make out another’s head and tail. The paint flows in streams, reminding us – as if it were possible to forget – that we are in front of an invention, a world shaped by artifice and imagination.

“A Lesson in Nostalgia” (2019) by Jennifer Packer © Jennifer Packer. Photograph by Ron Amstutz, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins/Corvi-Mora

His work rises where liveliness meets ambiguity. In the drawing “The Mind Is Its Own Place” (2020), two male figures struggle, trying to free themselves – from each other, from two dimensions and from the framework of confinement. The image merges Mannerist graphic technique with the coiled violence of Goya, raising the question of whether we are meant to see one man or two. The title, from Milton’s lost paradise, suggests the portrait of an internal conflict, two aspects of the same soul locked in a permanent struggle. “The mind is its own place, and in itself/can make heaven out of hell, hell out of heaven,” Milton writes. Or perhaps, invoking Goya’s “Sleep of Reason”, the drawing suggests a brain haunted by its own dreams.

It must be hard to be a contemporary black painter who is moved to respond to nasty acts of violence but who is also drawn to flowers. She returned, with nostalgia and often, to the bouquets of Henri Fantin-Latour, a subject she had long considered for no trivial reason. This lust for their luscious beauty embarrassed her — until, haunted by the 2015 death of Sandra Bland in police custody, she took to painting funeral bouquets. Her 2017 “Say Her Name” is an elliptical form of homage, a finely crafted portrait of flowers that have played their part in honoring memory and are on their way to dust themselves.

‘Say Her Name’ (2017) by Jennifer Packer © Jennifer Packer. Photograph by Matt Grubb, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins/Corvi-Mora

Still life, also known as still life, emphasizes the relationship of the death of nature with human death and with the half-life of illusionist art. An anonymous 18th-century Italian painted a pink rose nestled next to a polished skull and, in a caption, gave the canvas a voice of its own: “We’re both unreal, I’m also the death. It’s a motto that helps unravel the bright, living surfaces of Packer’s paintings with their undercurrents of twilight and sorrow.

As of April 17, whitney.org

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