The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues
APR 2019 Issue

Jennifer Packer: M. Heller

This is a masculinity that speaks to domesticity, to the pleasures of relaxation, and to the virtues of quiet

Jennifer Packer, M. Heller, 2018. Oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches. © Jennifer Packer, courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

It's the green that really catches my eye; it forms the texture of the sitter's pants. As I keep looking, I notice other details—the couch cushions, the strong profile, the palm fronds in the background. The background is warm and diffuse, but rather than look at the viewer, the sitter is paying attention to something—a phone?—in his hands. This is a portrait of absorption; it is also one of intimacy. I'll be honest, the sitter reminds me of my brother.

Jennifer Packer's M. Heller (2018) permits a certain recognition of type. The sitter is a stylish, handsome, young black man. He isn't paying attention to us, though; like many millennials (and others), he is tethered to his phone. He isn't even looking in our direction; instead, he is slumped into the couch. We can't even be sure what he is really looking at since Packer has obscured the object in his hands.

In Packer's painting it feels as though we are sitting together on the couch, looking at this man with a sidelong glance. It is a painting of a moment. Implicit in the pose and the setting is a relationship. Part of that casual intimacy comes through in the painting's toggling between absorption and distraction. On the one hand, thinking with Michael Fried and his analysis of 18th century painting—a period in which the subject turned away from the spectator's gaze in order to give attention elsewhere—absorption itself becomes the object of fascination.1 Fried argues that this broken-gazed pose, in turn, permits the viewer to look even more intently at the painting, studying that which the subject has found so enchanting, and in that way attempt to enter her thoughts. Thinking with absorption enacts a triangulation between viewer, the subject of the painting, and the object of fascination—a relationship that brings the sitter's opacity to the fore, in this case, because we don't really know what is catching his eye. Yet to be this proximate to this unknown interiority offers its own version of intimacy.

On the other hand, portable digital technologies are more commonly linked to a culture of distraction, which critics say erodes interpersonal relationships. Joe Kraus argues that the constant interruptions wrought by smartphones mean that people are less productive and less engaged with what they are encountering in the present—be it tasks or other people.2 Sounding another alarm, Sherry Turkle argues, "Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We expect more from technology and less from each other."3 But in the home, which is what the couch and palm frond signal, this distraction means something else. We are in the presence of a sitter comfortable enough to ignore us, comfortable enough to be unguarded. Packer usually paints her friends, and this familiarity hovers around the painting in palpable ways. I see it in the slackened jaw, which announces neither absorption nor distraction, but comfortable presence. There is vulnerability in allowing oneself to be seen attending this form of minor pleasure. There is tenderness in this moment of bearing witness.

It is here, moreover, that we find a particular kind of black masculinity. This is a masculinity that speaks to domesticity, to the pleasures of relaxation, and to the virtues of quiet. We have grown accustomed to technology—particularly of the handheld variety—being used to mediate the relationship between black men and death, as numerous shaky cell phone videos can attest. In those situations, technology captures the black death spectacle and transforms it into its own form of the mundane. This is a cycle to which the other paintings in this series (still lives of flowers, funeral arrangements) attest. But to insist on another kind of black masculine mundane is its own form of radicality. Here, technology is for entertainment, distraction, absorption, whatever. It offers the opportunity to just be. Packer's depiction of this space of surrender, to self, to the moment, is what makes this a portrait of intimacy.

This easy companionship is the space of the familiar, which Packer produces aesthetically through her use of warm, vibrant colors and the way that she allows the details of the painting simply to fade away. It feels like a painting of a memory. In this way, the green that jumps off the canvas is not only embellishment or accent, but ambience. It suggests, to me, that the atmosphere is calm and nurturing. It offers an echo of the still lives, but emphasizes their connection to life, to the still living. In describing the power of the juxtaposition of black men and flowers elsewhere, Kevin Quashie writes, "Because of the flowers, he can be a subject more than an emblem; we can wonder if he loved pink and purple tones within ignoring the possibility of racist violence. Whatever the story, the flowers are a surprise that interrupt the dominant narratives that might be ascribed to the profile of a black man of that age."4 This negotiation between public stereotype and private comforts is precisely where we find Packer's sitter. But Packer implicates the viewer, too, in this atmospheric tenderness. Through rose-colored hues and green accents, proximity turns to intimacy.


1. Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

2. Joe Kraus, "We're creating a culture of distraction" May 25, 2012,

3. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Expanded and revised edition, (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 1.

4. Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2012), 7.


Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues