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Exploring Life and Death through Painting

New BUAG exhibition: Leidy Churchman: Lazy River

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A word of warning to anyone visiting the Stone Gallery these days. You’ll need to watch your step—we mean literally. Sprawled across the hardwood floor at the entrance to Leidy Churchman: Lazy River, the latest show at the Boston University Art Gallery (BUAG) at the Stone Gallery, is a giant painting titled The Pool. A gorgeous abstract of flowing blue, green, black, and brown hues, it’s almost impossible to avoid stepping on. But look closely and you’re more likely to want to dive in. The work captures beautifully the mystery and tranquility of a moonlit pool. It also serves as a signpost for much of the other work in this show. The palette is repeated in many of Churchman’s other works, which like The Pool, have a fluidity and a sense of playfulness.

On view through October 20, Lazy River is the first solo show at a university gallery for the Brooklyn-based artist, whose work has been exhibited internationally and has garnered the attention of both the New York Times and Vogue Paris. At first glance, these pieces have a simple, even childish quality, but examined more closely, viewers discover that every color and stroke is meaningful. Luscious greens, smoky blacks, and deep reds appear throughout the show.

“Black, green, white, and red—this has been a very strong and reoccurring palette that I was using while in Amsterdam on a residency at Rijksakademie in 2011 and 2012,” Churchman says. “It came about somewhat unconsciously.” His grandmother, he says, loved topiary plants, as well as depictions of them, adored fashion designer Coco Chanel, and always wore red, black, and white in homage to her. These memories of his grandmother have influenced his eye for color.

Mobile painting, Leidy Churchman, Leidy Churchman Lazy River, Boston University Art Gallery, Stone Gallery

Mobile by Leidy Churchman. Photo courtesy of the artist

“I think these four colors can bridge the artificial and natural world quite well, especially green,” he says. “Green is such a complex color, with so much depth, so many meanings and feelings, such a range—from life to death.”

A rich sense of life abounds in pieces like Beauty, an exuberant collaboration of angles and shapes, and Mobile, which resembles a dangling solar system, all the planets burning a bright orange. Conversely, the quasi-naïve Here and Spiders plunge the viewer into mortality by forcing the gaze down at gravesites. It’s impossible not to conjure darker thoughts looking at these two works.

Some of the paintings here are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s iconic pop art, especially his legendary series featuring Campbell’s soup cans. Like Warhol, Churchman takes everyday images, like the MasterCard logo, an ambulance, a lemon, a pizza box with the words “Your freshly baked Pizza,” and a silhouette of a man steering a gondola, to produce straightforward paintings that contain a subtle humor. Viewed collectively, these canvases force you to reflect on materiality in American culture.

Although painting is the primary medium in Lazy River, Churchman, who says he doesn’t believe in building a body of work from a single focus, also uses video. A flat-screen TV plays a montage of scenes from nature, including a robin sitting on the grass, ducks floating down a river, and a seascape disappearing into fog, mixed with the artist’s hand moving a brush over a painting. The videos, he says, are able to move in and out of abstraction in a different way than painting does.

Here painting by Leidy Churchman, Leidy Churchman Lazy River, Boston University Art Gallery, Stone Gallery

Here by Leidy Churchman. Photo courtesy of the artist

“Leidy’s videos and paintings contribute and participate within a larger conversation about the boundaries of painting and push preconceived notions of what painting is,” says BUAG director and chief curator Kate McNamara, who has been friends with Churchman since they met in the classroom of Gideon Bok, a College of Fine Arts assistant professor of painting. “I hope that this exhibition prompts questions and curiosity, while challenging the young artists, historians, makers, and general spectators that make up the diverse community that is Boston University.”

Churchman says the show reflects his approach to art: he prefers to take his time exploring life’s intricacies through painting. The exhibition title underscores the artist’s unhurried approach. “Lazy River makes me think about a lot of things in art—the way it’s perceived as natural and occurring, how it is seen and looked at, and said to unravel at its own pace, enlightened and effortless, expressive and beyond knowledge,” Churchman says. “I’m giving that permission to my work, to work easily and move slowly.”

Leidy Churchman: Lazy River is at the Boston University Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery in the College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through October 20. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

Tom Vellner can be reached at tvellner@bu.edu; follow him on Twitter at @tomgvellner.

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