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Leidy Churchman’s oil-on-linen painting “Reclining Buddha” (2020) hangs inside a shrine-shaped niche cut into a wall in the main space of Matthew Marks Gallery. The vast (48-by-79-inch) artwork depicts a sleeping Buddha carved into a cliff in the city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. It is one of several works in Churchman’s current exhibition, Earth Bound, to reference Buddhism, which the artist has practiced for several years.
While the niche, painted pale turquoise, sets the monumental Buddha apart from the rest of the show, a bench in the center of the room, mirroring one depicted in the painting, invites pause and contemplation.
The Buddha acts as the visual link between the work’s manmade and natural elements: the block pattern of a low brick wall in the foreground; the horizontal striations of the rock from which it was carved; and the vertical thrust of the trees along the ridge. The interplay of diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines weaves together the different parts into a holistic composition that keeps the eye moving.
One small detail halts the flow: an industrial stool near the lower right-hand corner. It looks out of place in the setting, maybe left over from a restoration or repair to the brick wall. While its bright blue hue draws attention Churchman’s vibrant palette — the greenery above, the brick-red wall below, and even the creamy brownish-grays of the rock — its banality intrudes on the spiritual scene, pulling it back to a contemporary reality. Yet Churchman imbues the spindly stool with character, positing the humble and utterly earthly object at the foot of the Buddha as, perhaps, symbolic of the viewer.
“Reclining Buddha” exemplifies the coexistence of philosophical and prosaic concerns in Churchman’s work. The sheer variety of subjects — ranging from book covers to interpretations of others’ artworks, landscapes, abstracts, and screen-grabs — has made their work hard to classify. But the artist’s soft-edged, sometimes faux-naif or dreamlike visual language slows the stream of information; surprising juxtapositions or references transform familiar images into repositories for the mysteries of being.
Earth Bound comes on the heels of a landmark year for Churchman, whose first solo US museum show, Crocodile, was presented in 2019 at CCS Bard’s Hessel Museum of Art (curated by Lauren Cornell). Crocodile brought together works from the past decade and showcased the breadth of Churchman’s oeuvre, including forays into video and sculpture. Among its 60-plus works were two enigmatic paintings of animals and their reflections, “Crocodile” (2017) and “Basically Good” (2013). The former portrays a crocodile crawling into dark waters, its reflection gleaming in the waves; the latter, a rat or mouse gazing at its image mirrored in a pool of water.
Animals play a significant role in Churchman’s visual world. While the reflections evoke Narcissus, the creatures allow the artist to represent consciousness without the weight of human social constructs, positioning them as models for detachment. In Churchman’s words (via email), animals offer “Complete fascination, metaphor, body, expression, color, myth, emotion.”
Known yet unknowable, they confront us with otherness. Or, as author Daniel Marcus writes in an Artforum profile on Churchman, the crocodile is “a portal out of selfhood, casting the artist as an unfathomable reptile,” although I would argue that the viewer equally shares in this act of de-centering.
Ideally, de-centering, takes us outside of our usual modes of perception and passive philosophical positions, and helps viewers (particularly those who are straight, white, and cisgender) to disengage from ingrained ideologies. It thus endows Churchman’s work with a sociopolitical dimension that is most apparent in paintings such as “The Teachers” (2018), which was included in Crocodile. “The Teachers” recreates the cover of the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, a study of the white supremacy encoded in the Western adoption of eastern religions.
In Earth Bound, “White Girl” (2019) subtly reiterates the issue of race. Through the stark simplicity of the title, the image of a white woman on a bicycle lays bare her cultural privilege, and the image (and woman) cease to read as neutral. With both paintings, Churchman acknowledges their own whiteness, with its concomitant cultural privilege.
More broadly, Churchman addresses the act of de-centering the self through the metaphor of seeing both all and nothing. “Earth Bound (Card 21 of the Secret Dakini Oracle)” (2020), based on a Tantric divination card designed by artist Penny Slinger, recalls “Earthrise” — the iconic photo of the earth shining above a desolate lunar landscape — taken in 1968 by astronaut Bill Anders from the capsule of Apollo 8, the first spaceflight to orbit the moon.
But here, the rocky lunar desert in the foreground of Anders’s photo replaced by a second earth. What signifies new beginnings in the Tarot deck provokes instead a sense of otherness in Churchman’s painting, of seeing oneself from a separate but uncannily similar body.
“iPhone 11” (2019-20) inverts the universal perspective of “Earth Bound.” Three round lenses on the titular phone mimic a face, which stares blankly at us, implicitly indicting our voracious appetite for capturing life without fully engaging with it. The paradox that Churchman seems to present in both of these works is that seeing all — that is, seeing the entire earth or its infinitude of images — can never convey a whole, and indeed, the notion of a whole is an illusion.
Like “Reclining Buddha,” these paintings oscillate between the vastness and the minutiae of being. Churchman raises pointed philosophical and sociopolitical inquiries by coaxing viewers toward a position of otherness, in turn prompting us to look actively from different perspectives. But the artworks’ radiant renderings, which fuse the luminosity of oils with the lightness and clarity of drawing, also convey a sense of generosity, even playfulness, that prioritizes lived experience over critical distance.
To that point, “Kishkindha Forest (Jodhpur)” (2020), a schematic depiction of the fabled monkey forest in the Ramayana, is saturated with swirling sky blues, grassy greens, and glowing, acidic pinks and purples. Trees are bedecked with colorful flowers and fruits like Christmas ornaments, as gold and silver monkeys converse and frolic over nearly every patch of land. The piece — Churchman’s joyous interpretation of an 18th-century painting — doubles as an allegory of dharma, the proper social and cosmic order, as represented by the obliging animals of the Kishkindha Forest, and an aesthetic carnival.
As Churchman wrote in an email:
There are many invisible aspects coming towards you in painting, as in life. In painting, though, you are given the whole map to stare at, but maybe because there can be so much nuance, or layers of seeing and feeling, they all get packaged together as one look. The painter has an advantage with [achieving] this.
Near “Reclining Buddha” and “Kishkindha Forest (Jodhpur),” “100 Billion Sadhana of Mahamudra” (2020) layers images and text into a galaxy of information, meaning, and perspectives. At the center of a stormy violet cosmos — or cyberspace (indicated by a video control bar and a New York Times headline) — a faceless figure snaps a photo with an iPhone. Two partially obscured words, “Giraffe” in the lower left corner and “Police” at the center top, refer to different paintings by Churchman, while two aphorisms by Buddhist teacher and meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche run along the bottom: “Although I live in the slime and muck of the dark age, I still aspire to see it”; “Although I stumble in the thick, black fog of materialism, I still aspire to see it.”
The blank slate of the figure, taking our picture as we gaze at the artwork, is no generic “I” or “you” but a borderline between seeing and being seen, between the “it” and the “I” in Trungpa’s two phrases, de-centering us — like so much of Churchman’s art — to remind us that we are both.
Leidy Churchman: Earth Bound at Matthew Marks Gallery (522 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Please check the gallery website for business hours and further information in the coming weeks.