Jennifer Packer’s Quality of Life at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
When the subjects in paintings are depicted as if aware of the physical confines of the canvas, they often suffer its encroachment. Some painters have chosen to create an antagonism out of subject and frame, as if the space of the picture plane would collapse in on itself if not for the subject matter’s resistance. (Think of Picasso’s Old Guitarist, whose neck is bent at an unbearable angle, or Matisse’s Blue Nude series, the roundedness of which push against the paper’s edges.) But the figures in Jennifer Packer’s Quality of Life at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. have an uncommon ability to look well-situated, contained, and comfortable. They exist fully and clearly in dialogue with the plane of canvas, but are neither threatened nor smug about it.
Perhaps this feeling is derived from the way these bodies fold (or unfold) and in so doing emphasize their center of gravity. In Jess, the titular Jess leans back just slightly, a signal towards receding space. By reclining, she fits herself into the space of the canvas, as if leaning back in order to accommodate its frame of reference. Any bit of her that does escape the edges is made up for in the sheer presence of hands, an element so solid across all these canvases that they seem not to be a part of the diaphanously brushy figures at all.
Again and again these subjects center themselves, either by leaning slightly in or out, by stooping or slouching in such an unstudied way one cannot help but to feel that the precise framing of these positions was equally accidental (but what in painting is accidental, may I ask?). In Eric, a downturned face and slight slump of the shoulders just fit this big man into the frame, achieving a similar effect, as if these slight modifications of posture were intended to keep these subjects fully in our line of sight. The casualness of this is all in service to Packer’s mission to depict black bodies “with shameless generosity and accuracy.”
Upon my second visit to this show, I was shocked to find that I had misremembered the size of these works, as most canvases were much larger than they appeared in memory. A testament to the elegant compactness of their forms, their impact was achieved in their rendering rather than in their size. In fact, these canvases don’t gain much from being so large. (It seems as if Packer has realized this, as she has included several very small (and equally impressive) canvases in the show.)
Along side these portraits are several canvases depicting plants, either large ones with fronds or else lush, leafy ones on a dark ground. These plants, however, don’t have the same sense of containment their human counterparts do. Rather they are expansive, centrifugal where the figures are centripetal. If we interpret these blooms as funerary bouquets for the innocent lives claimed by police brutality, as the press release suggests, the way energy is forced out of these canvases is the antithesis of the vital bodies that lean back in repose in the show’s other works. In either case, Packer has succeeded in what she set out to do: bring attention and respect to the lives (and deaths) of black bodies.
Jennifer Packer: Quality of Life
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
530 W 22nd St.
Until January 19