Leidy Churchman: New You
On ViewMatthew Marks
March 11 – April 23, 2022
Leidy Churchman is a queer gift to the tradition of American landscape painting. This might seem an odd statement, given that Churchman’s subject matter ranges from nature views and animals to interiors, abstract compositions, and screenshots. Yet the physical world and the world of the mind are interconnected, and approached by Churchman—who maintains a dedicated Buddhist practice—with the same curiosity and care. Each of the thirty paintings currently on view in the artist’s second solo exhibition with Matthew Marks conveys a powerful sense of place in a rapidly changing world. The press release informs us that Churchman “conceives of each painting in the exhibition as part of an interconnected body of work.” Moving across a variety of scales, palettes, and imagery, the exhibition unfolds like a mood board or mind map, giving the viewer a glimpse into Churchman’s inner and outer visual landscape.
Entering the gallery, I am instantly drawn to Wonderland (2021), a rocky seascape Churchman likely painted in Maine, where they are partially based. As the foamy water splashes onto earth-colored rocks, a triple moon floats in a gray sky. I cannot help but make a comparison to Frederic Edwin Church’s Fog Off Mount Desert (1850), which was also painted in Maine and depicts a very similar landscape. The serendipitous resemblance of their names aside, Church and Churchman share an ability to convey the sublime aspect of nature and its various moods, a worthy alternative to religion.
Unlike Church, however, Churchman lives in a time when much of our interaction with nature is mediated through computer screens. For the majority of us, the screen of a phone is our first view upon awakening: many of us check the weather app before looking out of the window. And when we do look out and see a nice view, we feel an urge to capture it with our camera. Every time I spy a particularly pretty moon, I snap a photo and text it to a special someone. Yet instead of simplistically critiquing technology and our relationship with it, Churchman considers the ways in which screens have become part of our daily landscape, for better or worse. Much of the artist’s own inspiration comes from browsing the internet, hunting for imagery that catches their interest. Rendering screenshots in paint on canvas has become one of Churchman’s signature gestures, an act that materializes the quintessential desire to deny impermanence.
One of several smaller canvases hung salon-style, thus emphasizing their interconnectedness, MOM (2021) depicts a screenshot of the artist’s mother in their contact list. The avatar circle shows her wearing a white bathrobe and looking into the camera somewhat skeptically. Above, we can see that Churchman has a full battery and a perfect Wi-Fi connection. A two-panel composition of an astronaut casually cruising by planet earth (Exterminate All the Brutes ) does not reveal its source so easily, that is until you step closer and notice the progress bar at the bottom that tells us Churchman is about two-thirds of the way into a TV-show episode.
The exhibition title, New You, speaks to Churchman’s ongoing interest in transition, whether related to their gender identity, spiritual practice, or creative space. A small painting titled New You (2021), hung on the same wall as MOM, depicts a cartoonish elephant head attached to an ostrich-like torso and grasshopper legs. Reminiscent of a cadavre exquis, the figure is a playful representation of someone constantly shedding and remaking identity. The phrase New You is repeated in the largest work in the exhibition, one of the largest pieces Churchman has created to date. Consisting of two panels, Eternal Life New You (2021) presents a Monet-inspired landscape with waterlilies floating in a pond more reminiscent of clouds than water. A grasshopper sits atop an ambiguous structure—perhaps an abstracted tree limb—and the alphabet appears camouflaged in the sky of the right panel. Tree branches peek in from the top left while a rough parallelogram is sliced out from the landscape like some kind of metaphysical frame or door, its borders slightly elevated in perspective. In the bottom corners, tan stones unfold onto the landscape like hairy limbs emerging from the water.
Most striking, a black monochrome rectangle looms at the heart of the composition, centering abstract form in an otherwise figurative work. Unlike some of the other abstract works in the show, which can read like close-up views of skies and window patterns, this black rectangle provides the eye no hint of representation. Within Churchman’s visualized landscapes of the mind and experience, the black void is a poignant embodiment of the Buddhist journey to transcendence. Relinquishing a desire to grasp the material world, it opens up the potential to discover new landscapes yet unknown to consciousness.