In Which Humanness Rests

By Oscar yi Hou, Columbia University.
Originally published in the 2019 print edition.

1. Negative Space

My relationship to my paintings are like my relationships to people.” (Jennifer Packer, 2017)1

Subjects melt into red earth in Graces, a painting of artist Jennifer Packer’s from 2017. Sparse, uneven strokes define the figures—some sandalled feet here, a propped-up elbow there—enough to reveal the painting as a figuration, a referencing of the world and its people, but not enough to meet its hard definition. Graces lies between figurativism and abstraction.

Negative space is barely defined. The spaces in the piece that are free from sparse, dark, figure-building brushstrokes suggest regions of abstraction, allowing the sandalled feet and the faces of the painting—ostensibly the subjects—to exist. A key function of negative space is to create the delineation between subject and environment. Yet all the parts of the piece share the same color density and tone and are populated with the same visual ornamentation. The bottom-left corner, though figureless, still contains the remnants of shapes, appearing as half-built forms. The top-right seemingly represents a wall, which often functions as a plane of negative space. Instead, it is punctuated with what seems like a polaroid or some kind of poster, rendered with white, drawn at almost perfect perpendicularity and straightness (compared to the rest of the painting)—helping it stand out. Though Packer’s dark strokes somewhat help define the forms, they do so with a minimum exerted effort. Often the figures simply ooze away. Consider the top-left corner: the snake plant, painted in green, mathematically opposes the redness, its color-wheel opposite, of the rest of the piece. It is also painted with the most detail and range—are we to consider this the main subject of the piece? The plant exists in what normally would be negative space, occupying a kind of alcove.

The “subject” of the painting is not the plant. Neither is it the people—the viewer is not automatically drawn to their faces, as one might expect from a conventional portrait. There is no such “subject.” Instead, Packer presents a liminal zone across the canvas: her subject isn’t defined by areas of absence. Formally, it’s pretty clear—the piece is hazy, it’s oozy—it’s all red. Notably, however, her artistic motivations elevate it beyond just rhetorical technique. Her use of space becomes vital for her work: these paintings image “not figures, not bodies, but humans,” she says in 2017 interview with Artcritical.2 We will consider how her subjectification of people as humans, as opposed to the objectification of people as mere figures or bodies, allows the viewer to see how her use of negative space is more than just a formality. It will allow us to see how her work deals with the intimate relation between herself, the subjects she represents, and an oppressive world.

Packer is a black queer woman. In relation to the grand Western canon, so focused on white, heteronormative, male narratives and similarly gate-kept by those same men, historically there has been little art and creation that derives from Packer’s kind of human experience as a queer black woman. There has been little representation of her, let alone self-representation—no sovereign reproduction of her own image and life. She explains:

Black women’s reproduction supported the US economy for so many generations but their bodies are nearly invisible within US painting history either as artists or subjects. The preeminent “gaze” has turned away and overlooked, with consistency, our humanity and value.3

A property of the Western canon is that the same types of images of humans have been reproduced over and over again from the same types of humans. As she says, this canon is produced from a gaze that overlooks Packer’s personhood, and further, that even when the gaze does set black women in its sights, it is oppressive, colonial, and dehumanising. Through the sheer repetition of this propagation of a singular homogenous gaze, and its exclusive, dehumanising nature, subsequently, this has meant that we think humans can be reducible to mere figures or bodies. As mere bodies, figures, no longer do they fill a space greater than themselves like humans do—this has been the systematic objectification process of the human, which Packer’s subjectifying works protest against. Instead, her work is corporeal. Not necessarily in the general sense, that bodies are being depicted. But since within the Western art canon, the types of people she depicts are new to its iconography, her work is corporeal in that it is humanizing and so gives body, tangibility, and a physical marker of representation to subjects. Packer’s work is thus necessary. The alternative performed by the canon is to not paint them at all; or to depict and paint overlooked subjects as mere objectified figures or bodies.

We see her subjectification happening as her humans fill the canvas, as expression of themselves, rather than mere bodies. As she has said, “the more I approach realism, the further I feel from the true emotive quality of the things I’m depicting.”4 This emotive quality describes humanness as something metaphysical: we are humans beyond just our “real” bodies. And as a metaphysical property, it has to expand beyond the physical plane. An expressive, more abstract style—one that blurs the boundary between figures and negative space—is needed.

Hence her stylistic use of negative space in Graces,is more than just a formal process. There is no space “around” the subject to define it because she gives no space or room to commodify it, or objectify it has a mere body. Another example we can use is in How I Don’t Love You? (2014-2015) the form of the person’s legs repeat and echo into negative space, and the subject melts away, as if they can’t be contained. Indeed, Packer’s work doesn’t separate the subject from its environment because the image depicted is not one of direct reference to the physical world, but rather to the larger metaphysical nature of humans—in other words, the gestalt quality of humans beyond just our bodies. For Packer, people must be treated as wholes. To deal with the purely physical nature of humans is to reduce them as bodies, or homo sapiens, rather than entities beyond a taxonomical name. It is to deny them personhood. This analysis is a little clearer when looking at her non-figurative work, such as her still-lifes of flowers—Yellow Roses (2014-2015)  or Undone (2016)—precisely because she doesn’t treat them in the way she does in Graces. Here, there is a very clear application of negative space to demarcate the subject from its environment. There is little leaking of the flowers into the environment. Here, negative space is empty space, unpopulated with any kind of flower-ness, beyond just color referencing. Flowers are not humans. Whereas, in Graces,  the entire continuum of her subject exists within all the space of the work—both “positive” and negative space are filled with humanness.

2. Resting in shadow

There’s an essay I recently read by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki titled In Praise of Shadows, which discusses the shadow—haze, murkiness, the in-between-ness of light and dark—and its prevalence and appreciation in Japanese aesthetics: soup, lacquerware, architecture, interiors, and even the wooden floors of bathrooms. It is the “magic of shadows” that is so enticing and provokes meditation—the blurring of subject and environment. He contrasts this with the Western desire to illuminate and demarcate, sparing “no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.” Take, for example, the artificial Western floodlamps that destroy the magic of Kabuki theatre by bringing subjects and their environments into stark relief, asserting the actors against their own harsh shadows, rendering it all garish. Whereas, Tanizaki writes, in candlelight, or light filtered through translucent paper—Shōji—there is beauty in the shadows. Discussing how they accumulate in space: “We are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.”

Shadows; haze; nuance. By the very nature of their more vague metaphysical properties, humanness and human relations best exist in these places. Packer and her subjects inhabit these kinds of shadows, exemplified in other works such as No Mind For Yearning and Vision Impaired (both 2015). The shadow, the inbetween-ness, is where her work most compels. Her subjects occupy a small corner of the atmosphere all to themselves, hidden away or sunken into the ground. Like Tanizaki says, “in the darkness, immutable tranquility holds sway,” even in Graces, with sand-brick redness like blood and coarse, erosive drips of solvent in the bottom-right; despite this, the painting’s treatment feels restful and tender like soil. The liminal quality to her canvases—often evoking a form of blurred shadow—is what allows her subjects to seem to rest. And indeed, her subject feels quiet and meditative. Packer seats most her people in states of repose, on chairs or couches; she can take months or even years to work through a painting, which one would imagine necessitates seating her subjects comfortably. A small pool of watery oil paint will very slowly and patiently diffuse into the tooth of canvas, and likewise, her long, concentrated process and resultant images feels like humanness leaking into the fabric over a long period of time. Similar to how soil is the slow accumulation of earth’s history—its climate, geology, corpses—the way Packer fills space is a slow accumulation of her subject. There is something very intimate and hidden, but it has been digested over such time that it gains form, becoming tangible enough for us to see as paintings.

A final alternative interpretation of her use of negative space to consider: we might treat it as reminiscent of nostalgia or memories. After all, her subject, abstracted, blurs into its apparent environment. This, also considering the long periods of time it takes her to paint, harkens to how a memory becomes lost and abstracted over time into a dislocated vignette, gaining a haze or mystification, a disregard for subject. With old memories, the second-by-second actual happening becomes replaced by a vague gist, much like how the remembered details of faces disintegrate over time. But this makes her subjects seem less real and present, which is contrary to her subjectification. The subject hides away into negative space, rather than showing themselves the way Packer intended. I bring this interpretation up as a final remark because I think it’s important to establish that these paintings aren’t simply soundless vignettes of nostalgia; but that, less simply echoes of a past, they are living things—like humanness. Subjectification does not require a formal realism. Abstraction isn’t necessarily a separation from realism. It behaves more accurately than realism, depicting the metaphysical we feel alongside the physical we see. So if we see these paintings as vignettes, or perhaps dreams—just abstractions of life—they die a little. The liminal space, how she treats negative space, becomes more of a formal element, acting as the haze we feel looking into the past. Or they feel like just clouds someone dreaming flies through.


NOTES

1 Beau Rutland. “JENNIFER PACKER.” Artforum. May 01, 2018. https://www.artforum.com/print/201805/jennifer-packer-75053

2 Margaret Carrigan. “Jennifer Packer on Painting the Vulnerability of the Black Female Body.” Observer, Observer, 14 Sept. 2017, observer.com/2017/09/interview-with-artist-jennifer-packer-on-black-female-subjectivity/.

3 Charles Henry Rowell. “With Shameless Generosity: An Interview with Jennifer Packer.” Oral History Review, Oxford University Press, 7 Sept. 2016, muse.jhu.edu/article/629475/pdf.

4 Jennifer Packer. “Tenderheaded.” http://renaissancesociety.org/exhibitions/528/jennifer-packer-tenderheaded/

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