“Not Figures, Not Bodies, But Humans”: Jennifer Packer in conversation with Lee Ann Norman
New York-based painter Jennifer Packer is making a debut in Chicago. Her first solo institutional exhibition at the Renaissance Society, “Tenderheaded” will feature new and recent paintings, bringing together her interests in human relationships and their manifestations in portrait painting and still lifes. For a time, Packer kept her studio a private space—she did not entertain visits by colleagues, peers, curators and critics—and I was excited to visit her current workspace in the Bronx to inquire about the care and thoughtfulness she has always tended to lean toward as she works through problems and questions through her art. In a wide ranging conversation, we spoke a lot about some of her earlier work, its origins, and influences—she revealed that it’s difficult sometimes for her to part with the paintings because it’s nice to have the old and new together for perspective—and how it relates to her exhibition at the Renaissance Society.
Lee Ann Norman: I think I ask everyone this question firstly (laughter): When did you decide you would be an artist?
Jennifer Packer: I was born in Philly on a naval base that is now closed. I lived with my grandparents for most of my life in South Jersey. I went to Tyler [School of Art] and stayed in Philly a few years before going to graduate school. It’s a weird question for me, “When did I choose to be an artist?” I was coy about it. People would ask me what I do, and I would try to deflect and say, “I’m a painter,” rather than an artist. (laughter) I didn’t know what an artist was for me, yet. I just thought I had some things I needed to sort out and that I could maybe do it with painting.
How did you decide that art would be the way that you could sort those things out?
I realized that I can make a painting of anything—a fantasy, a question, a sadness—and based on the choices I’d make and my attention to what is cared for in the image, I could learn about how I feel and where my genuine concerns lay.
My first painting class was sophomore year with Stanley Whitney. There are many professors who have no shame about tying your achievements to their approval. But with Stan, it was like his disapproval became the most significant part of the class (laughter). A friend of mine, Susannah Habecker, would come in, and he would love her paintings, and the rest of ours would be disappointments. In that atmosphere, it was hard for me to distinguish between what was mine and what was his in terms of the concerns [in the work] then. Toward the end, I started making a couple of things that were my own. He also pushed me to go to Rome, which changed my life.
Are there things you can look back on from that time that define you now as a painter?
It was important for me to feel like I was butting heads with someone who had as strong of a personality as I did. But I try to keep my students from having that kind of relationship with me now. I tell them, “You gotta figure out your own thing, and we can talk about it, but I’m not here to give you a personal stamp of approval.”
Yes, I think that can be a more productive challenge than simply making someone say they like your work. You mentioned that Rome really changed you. When did you go?
In 2006. Stanley told me I needed to go to Rome and learn what it’s like to be a black person abroad. Rome was so complicated . . . . I experienced some really unique kinds of racism and isolation that threw me off my game entirely. I tried to get ready—I even took Italian before I left. (laughter) When I got there, I felt completely alone. I had physical exchanges that were really unpleasant. I was kicked by a woman multiple times in the cafe at the end of Via Flaminia in Rome. I thought I understood what racism looked like, but I was surprised that I couldn’t combat it with my intelligence, my dress—
—Or when you spoke English.
That’s the thing that makes it more complicated! I refused to speak English when I travelled. I think people made assumptions about who I was and what I was doing, or they didn’t care. After I got kicked, the other students in the program were in disbelief that it actually happened to me. Those kind of experiences can cause you to draw inward. One day, I walked into San Luigi dei Francesi, and I saw Caravaggio’s St. Matthew paintings. I got chills. Typically, Italian painting is [presented as] this vibrant, bloodless affair, but Caravaggio’s [paintings] are like: No. This is dirty, it’s nasty, it’s lonely, it’s hard. When I saw the paintings I felt like I was in the presence of family. I connected with the images immediately and felt changed. If these paintings—I felt like they were left for me—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 in painting where I am fully recognized as an artist, a queer woman of color . . . I don’t usually look at paintings and feel like they acknowledge me, but as a painter, I can connect with other concerns. We grab on to what we can. Caravaggio seemed dejected and I thought: I know what that’s like. (laughter)
How did you try to work through that problem you’d given yourself of creating images that might resonate with someone else?
I had a copy of “Letters to a Young Poet” that I took to Rome with me. [In the letters] Rilke is very clear about the necessity of solitude for individual growth, regardless of difficulty and loss. It was good for me to read, but painful to experience (laughter). I’d already started to make things that were intimate and introspective. I had made a really dark painting that was about my parents and how their choices affected my life. I want to make paintings that needed to be there, paintings that I can’t make again.
How does your relationship to literature, storytelling, and writing relate to painting?
I enjoy the fact that painting, like writing, is a language, and one can become more fluent over time. Writing can inhabit places where painting can’t and vice versa. I’ve been thinking a lot about the translatability of works of art and emotional experience. I’ve been keeping journals for years, and it has become really important for holding myself accountable to my vision and my personal growth.
A lot of the new work has a discernible image, but I can see where things aren’t totally filled in—they are more like a sketch of an idea, or they add and subtract information.
I’ve been interested for a long time in how I present or protect humans in the work. It’s not figures, not bodies, but humans I am painting. I want to know how to present a personal relationship without damaging the individual or putting them in harm’s way.
I read commentary about your work that described this process as you trying to present relationships in the paintings. You might know the people who sit for you, for example, but you want to reveal something more about them than their figure.
I thought if I filled the painting with distracting information, that people would turn away from the person and toward a kind of fantasy. But I saw Nicole Eisenman’s shows at the New Museum and Anton Kern and felt like I was in the presence of someone who was engaging unapologetically with their own pleasure. I wanted that for myself. I think for a while, my process simply became too rigid and overly severe. Now, I want to be able to ask many different questions and find various and unexpected answers, which requires more flexibility.
What kind of questions are you interested in asking?
I’m working on two paintings where I’m trying to figure out how to make logical decisions that are also deeply emotional. I’m looking for opportunities to describe how I think and feel, without breaking away from realism to do it.
I’ve been painting flowers on and off for about five years. When I first started painting them, I didn’t know why I was interested. There’s no singular stylistic intention. It’s not the image that moves me so much as the touch, color, light, and the movement of the image. I was painting them at first from observation as a way of grounding myself in the studio. Now they usually address a specific loss, which to me, requires time and deviation. I wanted to make a bouquet dedicated to Sandra Bland, but I didn’t feel I had the right to use her name or say it was for her, However, I know how traumatic experiencing her death through the media was for me. If you google a lot of the young black and brown people who have been killed by police, you can see images of their funeral, but not Sandra’s. You can see a stuffed animal, the burial, or a rose on her casket, but you don’t get to see images of the service. I started the painting this year thinking I would make a glorious funerary bouquet, but because I was so upset [about her death], still, it became this other charged thing. I wanted real justice for her . . . but there are some things painting can’t do. I didn’t know when I started the painting that I could use the process to move through my grief. But after I finished the painting, I felt differently, more in control, and less burdened. I feel comfortable now having difficult questions, and earning the answers.
Jennifer Packer: Tenderheaded at the Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, September 9 to November 5, 2017. 5811 South Ellis Avenue, Cobb Hall, 4th Floor, Chicago, Illinois 60637. renaissancesociety.org