WALTHAM — Paint can be so many things. Thinned, it can be fog: porous, breathable, and engulfing. Thicker, it can be skin, that film between us and the world upon which all our experience is somehow written.
"Jennifer Packer: Tenderheaded" hinges on paint's alchemy. The exhibition is by turns warm and gut wrenching, as so many things having to do with love are. Organized by curator Solveig Ovstebo for the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, it's at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University through July 8.
"Tenderheaded" is a word African-Americans use to describe women with sensitive scalps, but for Packer, it goes beyond physical tenderness. She makes paint an instrument of empathy.
She has two series on view: portraits of friends and family ("It's not figures, or bodies, but humans I am painting," she has said), and still lifes of funerary bouquets. These two groups twine. The portrait subjects are black people; the bouquets are sirens of mortality; Together, they express the vulnerability of blacks in a society that has consistently undermined their safety and well-being.
One of the darkly expressionistic bouquets, "Say Her Name," takes its title from the social media campaign that followed the death of Sandra Bland, who died in jail after a traffic stop in Texas in 2015. It's spiked with dying stalks, spilling with ghostly delphiniums, and washed over in places with water as if rinsed with tears.
In what might be a chilling call and response, Packer includes a painting of a policeman. "An Exercise in Tenderness," depicts a black man dressed in a sparely spangled, cobalt-blue uniform, but he is no antagonist. He recalls Vincent van Gogh's portraits of postman Joseph Roulin: sprightly, appraising. He holds his hands in front of his face as if he's lighting a cigarette.
Did Packer set a Buddhist task for herself to bring loving kindness to the rendering of a feared figure? She declines to identify the subject, but she has said this painting is not directly observational, as most of her portraits are.
It's a small work; the police need to be acknowledged, but without giving them too much weight. Much of this man's uniform is scrubbed down, so the grain of the canvas shows through, but his face and hands are joyfully laid on with thick, wet strokes, as is his hat. He's not a symbol; he's a human.
In several paintings, Packer toggles between sumptuous mark-making and hot mists of color. Steamy environments envelop many of her subjects. Ground overruns figure and space grows indeterminate, and within the mists bodies skew and bend, feet appear in the wrong places. In those baths of color, she finds what's inchoate, implicit, and changing in her subjects — the parts of them that have no contours.
"Jerriod" depicts a man enthroned in an easy chair. Colors simmer; Packer often works with a limited palette, and here it's saffron, paprika, and coffee. His face — all hat, glasses, and beard — perches above his shirt, which subsides into the yellow haze behind him. Yet his lap is painted over with easy, loose, arcing, almost-translucent strokes. It's like looking into water playing in a clear brook. You want to be there — just there, in his gorgeous lap. You don't want to leave.
Darting between details that are more lush than exact and great, foggy passages, Packer captures something about relationships (in this case between painter and sitter, but it's true of any relationship) — how slippery and undefined they are, and how suffused with sensation and feeling: lovely, tender, velvety moments, and cloudy, obscure ones.
Then there are the edgy moments. One of the works, "For James III," depicts the painter's father. The subject has defined boundaries. Growing up, after all, demands that we try to see our parents more clearly.
The man lies shirtless on his back on a mattress, his feet tucked behind him. His head rests on one arm, although a pillow lies adjacent.
Packer has oriented him upside down, robbing him of agency. The painting is gorgeous — the mattress is, in places, pearlescent; luxuriant strokes of teal edge the bed.
Two passages grabbed me. Packer erases and etches into her father's bare, sallow skin, making it worn and ravaged. This process of erasure and working over imbues the paint with history; it gets ravaged and heals; it develops scars. The marks on the man's chest are intricate and varied and hard to look away from — there is great tenderness in his skin alone.
When I did look elsewhere, I met his eyes and shivered. They are perfect circles of cloudy gray — not defined by eyelids or expression. He is dead-eyed.
This brought me up short. Packer's show is, in large part, about grief — the grief of loss, but also the grief immanent in loving, which makes past losses, and future ones, more immediate.
Both of those show up in "For James III," but in a different key from in the other portraits or still lifes. Perhaps a portrait of a parent is a work that never ends. "James" is as prickly as it is compassionate, but as in her other canvases, Packer paints more here than a portrait. She paints the stings of life, and the salves of mercy.
JENNIFER PACKER: TENDERHEADED
At Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 415 South St., through July 8. 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/rose/
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.