The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago is a stark contrast from the Gothic architecture surrounding it. It’s a pleasant surprise to find a modern space inside the stone, castle-like building where the gallery is found. Lying within, composed of a multitude of paintings ranging in size, style, and thematics, is Jennifer Packer’s exhibit, “Tenderheaded.”
It is very fitting that Packer’s work is being shown in a university building, as it adds to the more urban aspects of her artwork by placing it in a context that her subjects could be seen inhabiting. Despite the contrast between the environment of the gallery itself, the structure both fuses and separates itself from the building’s style, creating a unique atmosphere that Packer’s paintings interact with. The ceilings are flat, white, and high — almost chapel-like — but that’s the only feature of the room that remotely entwines with the building’s medieval exterior. The white spaces inside are endless, and seem to envelop the paintings, yet the empty background makes the colors of Packer’s artwork stand out all the more.
I was lucky enough to attend this exhibit with my Introduction to Painting class, where we had a word with Karsten Lund, the Renaissance Society’s assistant curator. He was very passionate about Packer’s artwork, using vivid hand gestures to show his emotion at her technique as he explained her incredible dedication. Lund mentioned that Packer could take years to complete a single painting; she picked up her work in lengthy intervals, and devoted herself to it when she did.
Using cartoon-like scrapes to create faces or objects, then superimposing these upon realistic shadings — only to top them off with vivid patterns — each painting is very different from the next. They’re also relatable, thanks to their laid-back nature and casual settings, which show a behind-the-scenes take on everyday life. “Graces,” which depicts two figures lounging in a cramped bedroom, could have even been set in a university dorm itself. The nonchalance of the characters she depicts is so natural that I felt like they were in the gallery with my class.
They are also are vivid and colorful, which is best depicted in her painting “Tia,” which shows a dark-skinned man painted yellow, outlined with a vivid flower print on a pillow and finalized by a loud, teal print on the man’s socks. However, once her work is analyzed closely, it isn’t purely aesthetic; in it are themes of life, death, and everything in between
One of her most powerful pieces is “Say Her Name,” which the exhibit’s curator, Solveig Øvstebø, cited as her favorite piece. A still-life of a funeral bouquet depicting bright blue, pink, and green foliage absorbing into a yellow and white background — turning somber as it merges with pitch black. Seemingly straightforward, the artist revealed in the Observer that she was inspired by the death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman living in Texas who was arrested for not using a signal before turning.
Bland showed incontestable signs of emotional instability and depression as soon as she arrived at Waller County Jail, which no one responded to. She was found hanging in her cell three days later, with her death ruled as a suicide. Coming on the heels of an absurd amount of racially-sparked violence by police officers, the lack of treatment by Waller County’s staff, combined with the inhospitable conditions of where Bland was held, helped spark nationwide discussions (and protests) in the United States about the mediocrity of the prison system, institutionalized racism, and discrimination against African Americans by the police.
A comparison could be drawn with “Open Casket,” Dana Schutz’s oil-on-canvas work depicting 14-year old Emmett Till lying in his casket after being brutally lynched by two white men in the 1950s for allegedly catcalling a white woman. Till’s mother, Mamie, famously held an open casket funeral as a way of protesting the disgusting violence towards African Americans during segregation. While similar in the choice to use blended, slightly-abstract figures in compositions of vivid colors and patterns, Schulz’s painting portrays death more overtly than Packer’s, whose funeral bouquets stoically mourn the untimely deaths of hundreds of innocent black youths, making her artwork doubly emotive.
Through fusing a range of carefully-studied techniques and merging them into a unique style, Packer’s work has created something entirely new. “Tenderheaded” is a quietly powerful exhibit — both aesthetically and emotionally. Or, as Øvstebø writes in the exhibit’s description: “Packer’s…works…are complicated, sometimes elusive, but always generous.”