Art In Conversation
Leidy Churchman with Louis Block
“If youre trying to tell me something, just tell yourself and let me see. Let me feel that intimacy.”
On ViewMatthew Marks
February 24–April 15, 2023
Leidy Churchman (b. 1979, Villanova, PA) has made paintings of almost everything. It is hard to summarize exactly what their paintings are getting at. Here is a long, non-exhaustive list of what I saw in their last two shows in Chelsea: waves breaking against a rocky shore with the moon as a blunt diagram in the sky; the interior of a house as an abstraction, as if color fields could be described as mid-century modern; a pointillist depiction of facial recognition software in action, frightening in its beauty and ease; a yellow window; a purple window; a pink window; a window-colored window; an elephant-turkey-lizard hybrid; a misty mountain; the milty cloud of a scorpion and its babies; the calculator app on an iPhone; the transgender flag with “smizing” faces; an astronaut flying a Tesla around Earth; clouds; flowers; a sunset; the moon; a confusing view of Earth from Earth; blackness; texture; ouroboros as pun; text (“The Laundry Room,” “Color-aid,” “There is an estimated $100 billion worth of copper located directly under the Buddhist site”); a devotional picture; a reclining Buddha; roses; venetian blinds; a copy; brushstrokes; polkadots; a bedroom interior.
There were two paintings that were particularly affecting: the first a small rendering of an advertisement for the iPhone 11 with its alien triple-lens camera, and the second a tightly cropped screenshot from another iPhone, showing the contact book entry for “Mom.” That dual mode of getting at the same subject, turning the impersonal into something personal, says a lot about Churchman’s approach to painting. I wanted to find out more about how they source their images, their Buddhist practice, and how they arrived at painting, so in the lead up to their first show of monotypes at Matthew Marks, I visited their studio in Tribeca. Surrounded by paintings in progress, notably a giant diagram of a black hole, we sat down for an interview. The following is edited from that conversation.
Louis Block (Rail): When did you start making monotypes?
Churchman: I think it was 2013. It was for the first monograph that I made, called Emergency. I made a monotype for the cover.
Rail: I was noticing in the catalogue for your 2019 show at the Hessel Museum, Crocodile, that there are a lot of prints for the section transition pages.
Churchman: I’ll probably always want to do that. It just makes it feel like a picture book to me. A book is usually being made because a bunch of work has been made, so then to make something in real time for the book feels really good.
Rail: So the impulse was connected to bookmaking at first rather than making discrete objects to be shown?
Churchman: Yeah, I’d rather make a cover than put a painting on the cover. To make an environment for the work really, because a book is so special—it’s what remains. It’s a wonderful thing. And I got to work with Dancing Foxes Press for the first and second books.
Rail: And who are you working with on the monotypes?
Churchman: That’s 10 Grand Press with Marina Ancona. I’ve always printed with her, too. I’ll probably print with other people in the future, though, to make different kinds of prints.
Rail: One of the prints I saw looked more like an etching. It was of a cat wearing a necklace.
Churchman: That one was made with a black wax pencil. Because with monotypes you work on a piece of plexiglass, and you are painting or drawing right onto that and then printing. So that one is just a drawing that was printed. It’s a nice way to get a line, but I don’t always use the wax pencil because I like them to be more like paintings.
Rail: Right—of the prints that I saw in the gallery, some had obvious brushwork and others had very smooth areas of color. You can roll the ink on too, right?
Churchman: That’s Marina, the printer, doing a kind of fill in. So, if I want the background to be rose-colored, she can apply color on the glass with a giant roller, and then I’ll take a rag and take out parts that I want to stay brighter. There are other things that happen in the process. For example, we’ll print the first one, then we’ll go ahead and run it through again to get a ghost. Then, usually I will go in and put a little more paint in certain areas, and we’ll print it again. So I end up painting the thing twice and getting three or four prints.
Rail: I was noticing that, especially with the prints of the seated giraffe, you’ve clearly altered the ghost image. There are also two different prints of a butterfly or a moth.
Churchman: Yeah, exactly. The one that’s the ghost of the ghost of the ghost, it doesn’t have the same color and browns.
Rail: It’s also interesting to see the insect from that side—with butterflies and moths you usually see the back, the full view of the wings, not the face and legs and body. I guess it’s as if we’re on the inside of a house, and it’s on the window, attracted to the light.
Churchman: That image came from this huge book that they keep behind the counter at the Strand. They let me look at it forever and I took pictures; there are lots of different animals. I want to go back and take more pictures—there was a giant sloth too.
Rail: You’ve made a couple different paintings of giraffes as well. There is the print of the seated giraffe, but then you had Giraffe Birth (2017), as well as an older painting in the catalogue of two giraffes crossing their necks.
Churchman: Yeah, they’re kind of fighting. And then I did another one years ago with three giraffes arranged in order of height, and they’re staring at you.
Rail: So you started printmaking in 2013, and I saw video work as well from around 2010. How did you come to painting? Were you painting in undergrad?
Churchman: I was. I went to Hampshire College. A lot of people were making art there and I had a studio, but it wasn’t an art school. It was kind of great—I think it’s the best kind of art school. It was a bit like a commune. The ethos there had nothing to do with the gallery; people were fighting against the canon. So it definitely wasn’t about fitting into that.
Rail: This is in the early 2000s?
Churchman: I started in ’98 and finished in 2002.
Rail: Did you go in with a medium in mind?
Churchman: I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to try everything and learn about Dada and make big messes, like painting on rugs. There was a lot of interest in Rauschenberg-type assemblage and Joseph Cornell, everybody loved that, collecting their hair and their toenails. Little bottles and curiosity boxes. It was that kind of vibe, but I wasn’t doing that. I had gotten into welding and I made billboards that I installed on the campus, like giant oil paintings with lights on top.
Rail: Was it faux advertising? What were the paintings of?
Churchman: No, they were abstract paintings. I remember thinking that color is too easy, you just use it and people love the color. I wanted to make it hard, so after that I just made drawings, but they were still on billboards, made with giant pencils.
I’ve always been interested in communicating, and being very direct. I think the billboards were a way of making contact through the work. I took an installation and video class that was really cutting edge. That was a brand new word—installation. So I decided I would make an “outstallation” with the billboards. [Laughter]
Rail: The other day I was looking through a dictionary from the nineteenth century. One of the definitions for art was simply “the opposite of nature.”
Churchman: Artifice. Scary. Well, it’s interesting. I think art is inner nature, you know? My grandmother would always say to me “you’re a picture no artist could paint.”
Rail: What were you doing between Hampshire and Columbia?
Churchman: I didn’t go back to school until 2008. I was just being queer and being trans and figuring it out.
Rail: Where were you living?
Churchman: I was here for a year, and the art that I participated in was all through the LTTR collective, with friends. But I couldn’t figure out how to make any money, so I moved to Chicago for two years. It wasn’t until I moved back that I started getting little studios, working jobs, showing in group shows. I didn’t have any plan, I didn’t even know if I wanted a gallery. I just wanted to keep making paintings and tell everyone about them and show them what I was doing. But eventually, I started to want to experiment more, and I wanted different kinds of responses. The community I had, people either didn’t care or they were really supportive. You know how your friends are: it’s a love fest or people don’t pay attention to you. But in grad school, people come and they say something. That’s when I started making videos.
Rail: Were those still collaborative?
Churchman: In some videos I did collaborate. I got help with extra camera work in Painting Treatments from my friend A.L. Steiner. And sometimes moving things around on camera I had help from Anna Rosen, Mira Dancy, and MPA. Not to mention the many amazing people that put their bodies in!
Rail: I was watching your video titled Blood (2013), where this colorful abstraction is made on camera, and there is another video where a toy snake is dragged across pigment and its body makes marks.
Churchman: I felt like the video camera was a way to change my painting. You’re farther away from what you’re making, but with the camera I could get up close and really examine it.
When I started out painting in those years before grad school, I started painting people. I just felt like no one looked at painting. Especially in the queer community, there was performance, video, installation, activism—those things were experimental and amazing, but painting was a dude thing. It was different than it is now. So I started painting people because I thought, “people like people.” Like, what makes people look at a painting? Most people don’t consider painting in their lives, but when I’m painting, I’m thinking of everyone. I think that the impact of painting makes its way into the stream. It has a little special channel to get into the stream of the collective mind.
Rail: A lot of your images come from screenshots, sometimes from social media, and I was thinking about what makes its way into our Instagram feeds. How much of it has to do with our community and who we follow, and how much is just being fed to us by an algorithm. Not to mention TikTok.
Churchman: I tried TikTok for one day, and it was showing me violence actually, not one hundred percent but I didn’t know how to get in and steer it. It just felt like a tidal wave, so I didn’t continue. There are definitely more of the screenshots with the prints than in the paintings these days.
Rail: And I shouldn’t say only screenshots, because sometimes there are also paintings of screens, with reflections visible on top of the image.
Churchman: Right, it’s more about our lives with these technologies. Like, this is how we laugh.
Rail: There are discussions about social media as a fundamentally good thing for society or a fundamentally bad thing, but it’s already such a large part of our lives. Certainly, there are parts that we should criticize and be wary of—
Churchman: I mean, TikTok seems really sketchy and addictive. We’re not sixteen years old so we can figure out a way to work with it, but I do think that it’s taken over how people see each other in a big way, or feel seen.
Rail: When I was looking at the prints too I was thinking of the fact that you have to apply the mirror image of what will be printed. Especially with text, you have to paint it backwards, so that’s another layer of filtering of the image. Do you think of that piece of plexiglass as another screen you have to mediate the image through? Or just another tool like a paintbrush?
Churchman: I like that it removes me from having complete control. Because you work on your composition as it is, and you can forget that you’re going to be seeing it mirrored in the end. Something happens in the printing process—I was telling Marina that it’s like being in the baby ward at the hospital. I make the thing, we put it through, and then she peels the paper back. It’s like something has been born, and it’s not what I was just working on. You actually end up making a really cool painting on this plexi, and then you hand it over and she wipes it away.
Rail: I feel that way about the glass palette for mixing paints, too. In the moment it looks like another painting.
Churchman: I feel that with my wooden palettes. I love this one over here, I don’t want to go over it anymore. It reminds me of the painting—
Rail: It’s almost like a forest.
Churchman: This was from making that long painting, Kishkindha Forest (Jodhpur) (2020). I got help from two friends painting that one. That was so fun. All those little monkeys and bears in the Kishkindha forest.
Rail: I’ve been looking at a lot of Buddhist images recently while researching your work. I just went to the Rubin. The detail on some of those paintings is really amazing, especially the mandalas.
Churchman: That’s how I feel. I’ve always had an interest in dharma, but going to the Rubin and starting to look at more of the art, I recognized something. It’s outrageous and wild and it further convinces me that art really matches the dharma itself.
Rail: In another interview you said that you’ve been thinking of painting as a way to learn dharma.
Churchman: Well, dharma though, what is dharma? I mean, it’s really yourself, or the nature of reality—
Rail: It translates to truth, right?
Churchman: It’s a really simple word so it’s used for a lot of different things. But yeah, to speak the truth, or Buddhist teachings. I think about this a lot, there actually is no “Buddhism,” it’s only your experience, your life, your feelings, and all that you already know and experience in yourself. That’s all it will ever be, it won’t somehow eventually become Buddhism. Everything’s just pointing you towards the truth of things. That’s why I feel that it’s easier for people that have made their own practice in something else, be it art, writing, things like that. You have the experience of wanting to do something and figuring out how you do it, just by repetition and curiosity and showing up to see what happens. That’s all dharma is anyway, because meditation is sitting down.
Rail: You’ve talked a lot about the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa. I was able to find some of his writing online, and there were two quotes that stuck with me. Talking specifically about art, he writes that “vision is not separate from operation.” And he also writes that the artist “embodies the viewer as well as the creator” of the artwork. Those ideas sort of do away with the dichotomy of the artist as a recluse or the artist as making work only for others, not for themself.
Churchman: I think that if you do something for yourself, that’s where people connect, because you’re actually being honest. If you’re trying to do something for someone else, then people can feel that and it’s inauthentic. If you’re trying to tell me something, just tell yourself and let me see. Let me feel that intimacy. We’re all so similar. What happens when I’m making art is that I get somewhere interior. The minute I feel that, I feel so connected to everything real and imagined. I just trust that that’s not pretentious. I’ve learned that following my curiosity is the way to go.
Rail: I wanted to ask about your two studios, because you’re talking about achieving that sense of interiority and curiosity, feeling actual connections to the exterior. Do you still have your studio in Maine?
Churchman: It’s more like a garage, but yeah.
Rail: I’m wondering, do you make specific types of work in each place? Does the actual location have an effect on the work, does it funnel in?
Churchman: Definitely. I mean, look at these paintings; they were made in New York City. It is just such a vivid place of sound and messages and signs and people and opinions and you can kind of feel it. It’s all turned up to such a high notch. Painting is such a good antidote to that. Sometimes what happens is if I’m somewhere like New York, then I go to Maine, I’m thinking about New York but I’m not there. You go somewhere else and then you can really see where you were.
Rail: Do you ever have an idea for a painting here but need to go to Maine to make it?
Churchman: Oh, that’s a fun assignment. I’m sure if I went to Maine I would just start painting a tree, the ocean, the sky, there’s just so much wildlife—
Rail: There was a painting in the last show at Matthew Marks, part of a cluster of smaller works on a wall in the second room. It had a few red and yellow trees in a green field. Did you make that in Maine?
Churchman: I did.
Rail: That one seemed to have no visual source, a visionary kind of painting.
Churchman: It was. It’s just so different when you’re in a place where primarily the natural world surrounds you and speaks to you. When you’re painting something in the city you can turn back into nature in a certain sense because you’re taking it into your own hands. I love being in the country and the city, but it’s really about how you feel inside. My biggest concern is that way of connecting to whatever’s around me. That’s very Buddhist: how you feel inside is your reality, and that’s how you deal. You will have pain or suffering, but how we feel and deal with pain or pleasure is actually our reality. Painting is that sense of how you feel in society, how that creates your reality.
Rail: You get to be the one making that world for a moment; it’s playing by only your rules.
Churchman: Yeah, it just gets picked up in the paint.
Rail: I also wanted to ask about the painting Eternal Life New You (2021), a large landscape with a black rectangle in the middle and a grasshopper on a branch in the foreground. How do you build a composition like that? Are you pasting together different references and melding them into something else?
Churchman: That one was really made up, completely. It’s similar to the large piece I made for the Whitney Biennial, Mountains Walking (2022), where I wanted to really get into the feelings of the water lilies. Not just to paint water lilies but to put my mind into that space. Eternal Life New You really put me in a futuristic mindset. The entire painting felt like a kind of desktop screen of the mind, one where tech and landscape combined seamlessly.
Rail: There are so many other motifs in the prints that we haven’t talked about. There is a figure wearing a robe and a hat with a boat on it—
Churchman: Oh yeah, that’s an Alexander McQueen design. My mom was in Australia at the museum when they had the show, and she put those pictures on Instagram. She takes a ton of pictures, so I get them from her.
Rail: That’s another one with several ghost versions. Are you thinking about showing those multiples together at the gallery?
Churchman: We haven’t decided. I do want to show the printing process. One thing that I wanted to bring up about the prints is the paper. With a painting, it’s on a support and the whole thing is that you cover it and it becomes an object, but with the print, it’s like the painting emerges out of the paper. So there’s this plane which it comes from.
Rail: Wolfgang Tillmans talks about how he thinks of the print not as flat but as just a very thin cuboid.
Churchman: Yes, you can see the paint, just naked in this paper world.
Rail: It goes into the fibers, too, it’s not just resting on the surface.
Churchman: It’s so fun to see, especially with the ghosts, and as you’re reapplying more paint and printing again onto that ghost, pulling out parts, you get a kind of atmosphere that only happens in printing. I think that I’ll always make prints. It’s also really wonderful to leave the studio. When you’re there in the print shop, you just have that one day, and so you experience the clock in a different way. It’s a fun dare to ask yourself what you can make that day.
Rail: And it’s collaborative, too.
Churchman: It’s collaborative. And like I said, new things are born out of nowhere. I feel like it’s fresh energy coming into my practice whenever I do it.
Rail: Since you previously worked collaboratively, with the videos and in LTTR, do you wish for more of that collaboration, given that painting can be more solitary?
Churchman: I think I’m doing the work that I’m supposed to be doing. I have a vision, and that’s what gets me really fired up. It’s a kind of seeking for self, or that non-self situation that you come across when you’re working on your own experiment. But it is fun when you can bring other people into it. You can share the excitement and surprise of parts of it. I’ve thought about doing some videos again. I probably will at some point. It’s such a mess. It’s really so fun. You know, if I started making videos again, I would probably just put them on Instagram. It’s funny how that would just really gobble them up.
Rail: I also noticed a print that reprises a painting of facial recognition technology, with all of these dots inside of a cube, building a portrait. What was the source for that image?
Churchman: A New York Times article. It’s such a painting. Our technology is trying to paint. Now, with all the A.I. advancements, that image feels very relevant.
Rail: There are also prints of a screenshot of Jennifer Coolidge from TikTok, and an Instagram meme page.
Churchman: What are these ways that people are getting messages? I’m excited to see how it comes together. Will it be a pop image show? I think intuitively there’s a lot more underbelly to it.
Rail: There are more enigmatic images, too: a staircase with a stop sign, a diagram of ocean currents, the Tesla in space, a patterned rug and chair, flowers, etc. Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about?
Churchman: Right before you came over, I texted my dharma mom, Gayle. I asked her, “what is my art practice about?” I was nervous that I wouldn’t remember. She said, “Ordinary mind. The deep nature of reality. Spontaneous insight. Loving connection. Tender humor. Longing and belonging. Ways of seeing truth.” That’s on the record!