Some unexpected reading material lay on the bench at Murray Guy on my visit to Leidy Churchman’s solo exhibition: a copy of Cell, billed as ‘cell biology’s top research journal’. The issue featured a painting by Churchman on its cover - the snappily titled Native Elongating Transcript Sequencing Reveals Human Transcriptional Activity at Nucleotide Resolution (2015), the original of which also hung nearby.
Though the gallery explained the story – the issue includes a paper of the same title, co-authored by the artist’s sister – it felt like an almost fabular illustration of some natural tendency to circulation: an affirmation that images get around, dispersing like spores. Art had also got out of place in Calder Over the Ocean (2015): an airplane decorated with red and blue stripes to Calder’s design (commissioned in the mid-1970s for Braniff airlines), floating oddly against a blue-black sea. And there was a slightly gaudy copy of Jacob Lawrence’s 1947 Victory (Jacob Lawrence ‘Victory’ from the War Series, 2015) its bare title and fidelity almost suggesting one of Lawrence’s originals had been lifted up from MoMA’s concurrent Lawrence retrospective and deposited across town.
Meanwhile, an acid-pink bathtub had somehow no less disconcertingly been plucked and plonked down before a vertiginous view of Manhattan dusk in Tallest Residential Tower in the Western Hemisphere (2015). The wide window framing the tub seemed unusually exposed, as if unglazed. The picture has the longing, unreal quality of an artist’s impression in a property development investment brochure – indeed, searching online for the picture’s title brings up ‘432 Park Avenue’, a new ‘supertall’ Manhattan apartment tower.
In some sense, most of the pictures in the exhibition were ‘artist’s impressions’, renderings of things not accessible to direct observation; un-built or long-vanished (the decommissioned Calder plane; a 2015 portrait of the last of the now-extinct passenger pigeons, Martha). Billions of Never Ending Universes and The Great Global Ocean Conveyor Belt (both 2015) charted phenomena – the distribution of states and cities across the globe and the worldwide circulation of deep-sea water respectively – that, while vaster than the micro-activity of the Nucleotide Resolution, are no more accessible to the senses.
This emphasis on rendering things not-merely-seen is one way to read the show’s invocation of Henri Rousseau. (The painter’s surname is the title of its largest individual work, a 2015 study of The Meal of the Lion, 1907, after which Churchman’s show was named.) Part of Le Douanier’s legend is that his awful but cheerful vision of the jungle was based on experiences no more exotic than trips to Paris’s Jardin des Plantes.
In this way, the artist’s description of the assembled works as a ‘junkyard of images’ is a red herring. Despite the surface diversity of subject matter and range in canvas size, a teasing logic was at work here. Just-submerged themes, shared motifs and concerns threaded between the pictures. Yet, Churchman seemed to sense these connections as if by sensory reflex – like that of the rodent, sniffing-out its own broken reflection in Insecure Rat (2013), hungry for self-knowledge in the form of images, doubles and mirages.
In a 1963 essay on Jean-Paul Sartre’s biography of Jean Genet, Susan Sontag posited, in parallel to ‘the primitive rite of anthropophagy, the eating of human beings’, the ‘philosophical rite of cosmophagy, the eating of the world’. This, I think, is the salience of the show’s title: like Sontag’s Sartre, Churchman’s response to ‘the brute reality of things’ is a kind of consumption, the paintings’ tacky, stippled, chewy surfaces declaring an art which is oral, masticatory, digestive; a great intestine, writhing like Ocean Conveyor Belt across the earth. Crab and Plankton (2014) might have been the artist’s displaced self-portrait: a great crustacean surrounded by feed glinting like constellations, his universe flat and edible.