Thursday, November 2, 2017

Tenderheaded: Tranquility In the Light


Time pauses, stilling for a moment, letting its invisible lungs ingest surroundings. The exhale is deep and long, dispensing into the air, losing battle in this beguiling light—the light that houses unconstrained spirits, these spirits yearning for peace and rest. 

At Renaissance Society, Jennifer Packer’s Tenderheaded suite of new paintings are scattered about, their parted in-between a carefully planned placement on pristine white walls basked in sunglow. This interior almost mirrors a church without stained glass prisms, but heavy presence of angelic interference is as undeniably arresting as the small painting of an officer in blue. Quiet, dreamy space is a mecca, a holy brevity of repeated polygon walls with rectangular windows admitting sun rays to mingle with Packer's paintings. This set stage for the viewer, whose eyes have been persuaded to swallow propelling energetic forces of warm, affectionate colors and thoughtfully considered brush outs.

Piece by piece lies an intriguing revelation of explorative color combinations eccentrically placed such as an energetic yellow and fiery engine red compete with brown and charged green in one large painting, complex hues and saturation arousing a profoundly muted purpose. Brush strokes play between lushly applied paint, absent paint and raw canvas, balancing the eyes’ need to rest and focus overall narrative. For example, flowers almost burst from the canvas, yet refrain, their impressive beauty a thing of string lines and voluptuous shapes vibrating intimately.


"Tenderheaded” has a complicated history in black hair culture:
A hairdresser asks the young lady, “are you tenderheaded?”

In other words, she meant, “can you handle the amount of pain that I am about to inflict on your scalp? And if you are tenderheaded, I will be gentle.”

Often, if one said no, a pain like no other would be unleashed, the incessant tugging on fragile hair strands, the angry flickering of a pesky wide tooth comb, and the neck feels stretched back a thousand centuries, this excruciating sacrifice in the face of ingrained beauty. This was a secret between the sitter and the hairdresser, an inheritance passed down, to bravely take brutal battle, intuitively knowing that it would pass and loveliness would take steed.


However, Packer teases another perception, taking apart this familiar language, conceiving a sophisticated olive branch to cling upon. Singular narratives interwoven in these ghostly surfaces, painted with such gentle affection and care, her signature movement, the figures and their environments are important, but also the state of humanity, of feeling authentic and present, to be fully alive in a with hinted descriptive objects that hold sentimental value to the sitter. In another painting, a golden yellow cast portrait, is a radiantly glowing Venus, off centered, the glow seeming to wrap around her, a softly magical essence that wraps around her figure, the typewriter, and flowers behind her. She embodies words of Meg Henson Scales' profound essay, Tenderheaded, or Rejecting the Legacy of Being Able to Take It, especially tracing along lines:

"Strongblackwoman's most striking characteristics are her gross displays of endurance and the absence of personal agenda. The strongblackwoman lives for (and sometimes through) others, and is culturally valued in direct proportion to her personal sacrifice. Strongblackwoman are the astronauts, the most right stuff of American martyrdom.

If we consider Tenderheadedness as a paradigm for self-worth in black girlhood, we can perhaps understand something more of what makes American black women so specifically disparaged from within and without."

Packer's work explores both women and men, these secluded queens and kings of their specific domains, respectfully rendered, in control of their ethreal environments, marginalized bodies existing in mysterious suspensefulness. 

Mesmerizing flowers too hold an arousing metaphor, an adjacency to living with a purpose beyond physical beauty, well past the branch of still life study. These paintings feel like extensions of the human body, ruffled by gently conveyed leaves and spirited petals, a beguiling softness that is just as undeniably expressive as the figures. 








Tenderheaded is up until November 5, 2017 at Renaissance Society in Chicago.

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