Jessica Langley: Hymenophore
May 5 through 21, 2022
By SOMMER BROWNING, May 2022
…the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival. All ﬂourishing is mutual. Soil, fungus, tree, squirrel, boy—all are the beneficiaries of reciprocity.
-- Robin Wall Kimmerer
I first see the blue tarps when I visit my family in Pensacola. I think it was after Hurricane Andrew, but it could have been Opal or some other innocuous name we give these increasingly destructive storms. The tarps were bright, vivid, incendiary blue against the cloudy Florida sky. Brought by FEMA, I was told, to help protect the buildings from further damage. They were everywhere I looked; as indiscriminate, it seemed, as the storm itself. Townhouses, trailers, condos, bungalows, ranchers, and apartment buildings were cloaked in blue.
A photograph of a landscape dotted with these blue plastic band-aids is now an expected, almost obligatory, feature in American hurricane reporting. But the tarps are misleadingly neutral. We know climate change and natural disasters ransack the poorest communities, the brownest communities, the most. Five years after Hurricane Maria, you don’t see many blue roofs in photos of Puerto Rico even though 80% of the buildings are still damaged. The blue tarps have disintegrated; they were meant to last 30 days.
Jessica Langley’s Hymenophore is a show made of two parts that tell one story. The exhibition consists of four large paintings of strategically arranged icy blue rectangles of construction foam and a video of an animated blue oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) spinning against the sky. The rigid construction foam is upcycled; Langley harvested it from scraps at building sites in Colorado Springs. Some of its baby blue is brown with dirt. It is made of Styrofoam—one of Dow Chemical’s (now DuPont’s) most famous inventions—and technically, it’s expanded polystyrene foam. Polystyrene is a hydrocarbon manufactured from petroleum. Thick sheets of this foam are used to insulate modern-day buildings because it’s waterproof and has both extraordinary “compressive strength” and durability. Her paintings of this substance are quiet, as contemplative as a still life…but eerie because there is no life at all. The foam in one painting is arranged to evoke Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice. In another, the rectangles stand at attention, angled on their edge—a sleek, anemic Stonehenge.
‘Hymenophore’ is an old word, 1665. It’s a sexual word, or more accurately an asexual word, related to fungi. Fungi don’t reproduce through sex (the fusing of two sex cells), they do other miraculous things to continue—release spores, bud, fragment. The hymenophore is the part of a mushroom or fungus from which spores are released. For the blue oyster that means the gills, which, until writing this, I thought were the mushroom’s lungs. Honestly, fungi have always grossed me out. My 9-year-old daughter told me that we have fungi to thank for homo sapiens; eons ago, a tiny, early part of us was a mushroom. So now my mushroom repulsion has turned into another form of self-loathing, apparently the most fundamental one.
Among the four paintings, Langley situates the video of the animated blue oyster mushroom. The mushroom spins, grows, revolves, and shimmies in a blue sky. It is imbued with all the life the Styrofoam insulation seems to reject. The mushroom is contoured, soft looking. Its folds and hymenophore are unmistakably fleshy and giving—not very asexual, if you ask me. Langley raised this mushroom in her kitchen, photographed and scanned it, and then ate it. When she talks about her work, she talks about building blocks, alternative ways of connecting, and networks of knowledge. She asked me, How can we evolve? She explained that fungi can be symbiotic, parasitic, and saprophytic. Saprophytic mushrooms, of which the blue oyster is one, are in the news all the time—they’re trying to save our asses. They break down hydrocarbons, they can feed on oil, boat fuel, contaminated soil, PCBs, some even soak up heavy metals like mercury. Unfortunately, we don’t take advantage of them much because it’s cheaper to scoop up the toxic soil and cart it to a landfill.
A landscape painting offers us a chance to contemplate nature. But what do we contemplate when we stand before a landscape of polystyrene? I think of Pensacola covered in blue tarps. I think of how Styrofoam never biodegrades, but memory seems to.
I remember now, it was Hurricane Ivan.
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants encourages humans to be stewards of the earth through reconciling our unity with it. In the book, Kimmerer mentions Styrofoam four times. Once she uses the product to describe the cellular structure of the spatterdock lily. The other three times Styrofoam carries food. Something is broken when the food comes on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in slippery plastic, a carcass of a being whose only chance at life was a cramped cage. That is not a gift of life; it is a theft.
I think about Langley eating the mushroom she raised and photographed—the very mushroom we see spinning before us. I think about how babies are now born with microplastics in their new bodies. What does it mean that she paints the Styrofoam so Romantically, a style popular 200 years ago? While the mushroom, an organism that’s been here for 800 million years, is scanned, vectored, and re-animated? It’s as if she’s built us a time machine.
How do we evolve? Do we identify with the oyster mushroom or the polystyrene? Or are we somewhere between the two? We are a young species that has a lot to learn from ancient ones that, as Kimmerer writes, have had time to ﬁgure things out. Time, there it is again.
As I watch the mushroom levitate and spin, I realize Hymenophore isn’t a story, it is a kind of evolutionary prototype. A call to integrate the ancient in the modern. A way to move forward responsibly by looking back. Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away, Kimmerer writes. The answers are all here, within and without us. WM
Sommer Browning is a poet and writer living in Denver. Her third collection of poetry is Good Actors (Birds, LLC; 2022). Her poetry and art writing have appeared in American Poetry Review, Southwest Contemporary, Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, and elsewhere.view all articles from this author