In ‘The Harlem Ghetto: Winter 1948’, James Baldwin remarked that ‘Harlem wears to the casual observer a casual face’, its steady urban rhythm concealing from passer-by the extent to which generations of its residents have suffered systematic violence and oppression. Drawing from this sentiment, Jennifer Packer’s beautifully restrained paintings create a safe space in which to consider questions of mortality, subjectivity and belonging.
Alternating between affectionate portraits of close friends and family members and spindly, untamed bouquets of wild flowers and stems, the 15 paintings in Packer’s exhibition ‘Tenderheaded’, at the Renaissance Society, are all different forms of memorial. There is Jerriod (all works 2017 unless otherwise noted), staring squarely back at me from his plush, candy-red armchair. His tranquil gaze contrasts with his surroundings, which have been consumed by an auratic flame of coral and saffron – though the snowy white sneakers on his feet are safely out of the heat stain’s reach. He faces Tia at a long diagonal, mirroring her Maximum Yellow hue, garnet fringe and stare of cool resolution. April, Restless swivels away from a pale sea-foam desk that bears a marigold typewriter, pastel-coloured office supplies and a spray of wildflowers, above which hangs a black-and-white snapshot photograph. The elegant, towering central form in Ain’t I, painted in muddled strokes of cream and honey-yellow and carved up by lacy umber strokes, suggests one slim figure sitting atop the shoulders of another, their hands and knees eclipsed in shadow. The eight-foot-tall painting hangs beside, and apposes, the diminutive, postcard-sized An Exercise in Tenderness, depicting a police officer with muddled, anonymous features, dressed in crisp indigos and sapphire impastos.
Packer’s flowers are as fragile as they are withholding: softly glowing funerary bouquets fade into dark, sombre backdrops. The muted scenes in the paired Hold and Interference/Vermont – especially the tanned, sepia background in Hold – offset their tangled fronds and petals in pristine white, inky violet and warming yellow-orange. Honouring the deceased with a flower is as old as the practice of burial: Neanderthals covered their dead with a shower of flower pollen. The flowers’ stiff composure is broken in Say Her Name, dedicated to Sandra Bland, a civil rights and Black Lives Matter activist who was found dead in a Texas jail cell in 2015, just a few days after being pulled over for a routine traffic stop. The title of Packer’s painting refers to the hashtag minted in response to the police cover-up of Bland’s death.
Packer was an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2012. Though the time she spent there predates most of the works on display here, she has continued to work in a nearby Bronx studio. The area has undergone extensive, even relentless gentrification since the publication of Harlem Ghetto, but Baldwin’s anxieties about the neighbourhood still seem justified. Packer’s wan, relaxed subjects in repose sit in a space the artist chisels away for them, removed from the violence of the outside world. There, sombre funerary garlands can unwind and dearly held intimates can relax and pose for her, on their own terms.
Main image: Jennifer Packer, 'Tenderheaded', 2017, exhibition view, The Renaissance Society, Chicago. Courtesy: The Renaissance Society, Chicago