LOS ANGELES — When thinking of portraits, my mind defaults to the features of the iPhone camera setting. The subject is in sharp focus, while the background remains a hazy blur. This setting succinctly distills the logic of traditional portraiture. As viewers, we are encouraged to zero in on the isolated figure, discarding any detail that exists outside this tight perspective. In the past, portraits were used to convey the power, beauty, and wealth of the sitter. Before the advent of photography, it was the only way of documenting — through painting, drawing, or sculpture — the appearance of someone. Now, formal and informal portraits populate our social media feeds, becoming another facet of modern living. Despite the ubiquity, the visual form brings up juicy questions around truth and representation. Can portraiture capture the essential character of the subject? Or is that even the point?

Bronx-based artist Jennifer Packer considers these questions when creating her own sumptuous oil paintings. “I’m not interested in the hierarchy that portraiture suggests. I’m interested in the codependency of humans existing in spaces along with other really important information. I’m interested in environment as much as the figures that sit within it,” she explained in a video for the Serpentine.

Installation view of Jennifer Packer: Every Shut Eye Ain’t Sleep, at MOCA Grand Avenue (image courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art, photo by Jeff Mclane)

Every Shut Eye Ain’t Sleep, Packer’s debut West Coast solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), gathers 25 new and recent works that explore the limits of painting and representation through portraits, still lifes, and charcoal drawings. Packer created most of the work in the last year, compelled to process the suspension and horror of 2020 into elegiac mood studies that wrestle with the collective sense of exhaustion, fear, and longing.

Packer’s portraits often showcase her friends and artistic peers. “Interior” (2021) depicts a person in their apartment. Unlike with traditional portraits, I am drawn away from the figure, who sits on a maroon couch, to the objects sharing space with them. There are red scissors, a wire plant hanger, magazines strewn on the floor. The colors are warm and earthy, recalling the waning golden light on a crisp fall day. The scene doesn’t feel frozen in time, everything appears to be moving or at least cackling with its own auric forcefield. The figure isn’t singled out as the sole recipient of our attention — the pleasures come from the intimate relationships between the subject and background, and how seemingly insignificant details can shift and contradict the meanings of the image.

Other paintings return to scenes of domestic stillness. Two untitled works from 2021 portray reclining figures, their facial expressions scrambled by the loose brushstrokes. They feel like people glimpsed through the haze of memory, a fleeting image that surfaces briefly before dissolving back in time. Packer has described her approach to figurative abstraction as “dissolution,” an interest in breaking down coherent depictions of humans and their surroundings. Just as the eye cannot perceive everything in our world, painting can only provide us with a momentary glance, a sliver of a person’s inner life.

Jennifer Packer, “A Little Life” (2021), oil on canvas, 22 1/2 x 18 inches (image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, Corvi-Mora, London)

Jennifer Packer: Every Shut Eye Ain’t Sleep, organized by Bennett Simpson with Anastasia Kahn, continues at MOCA Grand Avenue (250 S Grand Ave, Downtown, Los Angeles) through February 21, 2022.

Allison Conner's writing has appeared in Bitch, Full Stop, Triangle House Review, and elsewhere. She writes about movies and books at loosepleasures.substack.com