The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing
Serpentine Gallery, London
5 December 2020 – 22 August 2021
The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing at the Serpentine Gallery in London is the first major survey of the New York-based artist Jennifer Packer’s oeuvre and her inaugural exhibition with a European institution. The show consists of thirty-four works, including portraiture, still life, and interior scenes. Packer’s expressive painting style combined with the works’ subtext of racial conflict encourages viewers to reflect on the gravity of Black lives. As the exhibition title suggests, the artist plays upon ideas of visibility and invisibility, often obscuring traditional features of the subject in portraiture to subsequently demonstrate the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of Black representation in both the western tradition and contemporary society.
The Serpentine’s display of Packer’s works illuminates the artist’s desire to venerate Black subjects: the vibrant pigment of her oil and her charcoal exist in sharp opposition to the white walls of the exhibition space. Packer places Black lives at the centre of her practice, with portraiture offering fertile ground to pay homage to friends and acquaintances. Tia (2017) is a prime example of her painterly prowess: inspired by Philip Guston, the artist scrapes away at the painting while applying simple, sweeping brushstrokes to render her subject.Alluding to the erasure of Black history, Packer dissolves, fades, or deletes the faces, clothing, and limbs of her subjects. Indeed, by erasing those features that are traditionally thought of as critical in portraiture, she symbolically reasserts control of the Black narrative. In this regard, it is the contrast of select details with abstracted or empty areas that is most striking. In Tia, for example, the artist juxtaposes the smoothness of a figure’s shirt with a highly stylised mosaic pattern of their sock. By drawing attention to observable yet smaller details contiguous with blurred or excluded elements, Packer highlights to us the cognitive bias inherent in seeing itself.
Colour also plays a defining role in the Serpentine’s show. It is most noticeable in the pieces that are painted with a provocative, deep red palette, such as Chey (2020), The Body Has Memory (2018), Tobi (2019), and Token (2020). While some of her portraits are subdued with blush and lemon hues, the most arresting of Packer’s works are punctuated by a potent, bloodied colour. She continuously returns to a palette dominated by shades of red in exploration of different forms of pain. In the artist’s own words, she became a painter after witnessing Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s use of ‘deep, dark representation’ in his Saint Matthew series at the Contarelli chapel in Rome. Like Caravaggio, her paintings often depict the fragility of life, struggle, violence, and death, while simultaneously venerating her subjects. She acknowledges the trials of human anguish and weaves into her work references to Black individuals whose lives have been tragically cut short, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Packer has expressed concern with the ‘objectification’ of the human body in modern media that can lead to a ‘loss of humanity’ and, as the result, her paintings have a distinctly redemptive quality. She also draws inspiration from Kerry James Marshall’s tenderness towards Black representation by featuring her subjects’ cherished possessions, such as the typewriter seen in April, Restless(2017). Similarly to Marshall’s works, Packer includes allegorical nods to the experiences of African Americans, and yet her deliberate application of red provokes a visceral, urgent call for viewers to recognise the suffering of Black lives in the world today.
Packer’s floral still lifes recall the vanitas flowers of Dutch old master painters and bouquets by the nineteenth-century French artist Henri Fantin-Latour. Like in the latter’s paintings, her blooms retain a wild, imperfect beauty. Five of these works appear spread across the gallery rooms, a constant reminder to viewers as they pass through the space that in life there is death. Packer’s botanical piece Say Her Name (2017) is a memento mori for the fleeting, transient nature of human existence whilst celebrating the life of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody. The artist’s still lifes possess an enduring melancholy as the death of Bland echoes the painful loss of countless other Black lives that remain absent from history. This disquietude is also revealed through the rendering of shadows that linger in all of Packer’s paintings yet are most pronounced in her still life works. By incorporating a delicate light into her artworks, however, she seems to suggest a vision of a hopeful future.
The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing brings the lack of Black representation in western art to the forefront. Packer’s empathetic exploration of erasure, her fearless application of paint, and her poignant use of memento mori aim to transform the existing narrative of Black lives. Oscillating between what is seen and unseen, Packer demonstrates the subjective nature of the historical record. Her re-worked, layered, richly coloured surfaces unearth the pain of human existence and yet they are often bathed in radiating, optimistic light. The white empty interior of the Serpentine Gallery becomes an art historical tabula rasa, in which Packer endeavours to portray Black lives thoughtfully and compassionately.
- Jennifer Packer, “I spend a lot of time thinking about Morandi and Guston – their sensitivity- a sort of obliteration of the picture.” She continues later in the interview, “He’s [Guston] probably the least obvious influence to my practice – my works don’t look as his do- but there’s a simplicity, there’s this clawing away at the painting, a kind of fluidity, a grounding in drawing that I feel really connected to,” in Hans Ulrich Obrist and Jennifer Packer, ‘What Can a Painting Suggest About a Meaningful Life?’, in Melissa Blanchflower and Natalia Grabowska (eds), The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing [exhib. cat.] (London: Serpentine Gallery, 2021), 70- 72.
- Obrist, 70.
- Serpentine Galleries, ‘Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing’ (December 2020), 9, uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/2020/12/Jennifer-Packer-press-pack-Serpentine-update-May-21.pdf.
- Solveig Øvstebø and Jennifer Packer, ‘A Conversation between Jennifer Packer and Kerry James Marshall’, in Tenderheaded (Chicago: Renaissance Society, 2018), 81.
- Jennifer Packer, “I think it [her flower paintings] began with Fatin-Latour. My favourite quality about him is that he gives life and then threatens that life in the same picture. Some of his flower still lifes feel like they’re choking on this grey air,” in Obrist, 76.