Cynthia Daignault, an artist Painting America in a New Light


Observing the self-contained, studio-bound practices favored by multitudes of New York’s artists, painter Cynthia Daignault has noticed a trend. “The world is really out,” she says, reflecting on predominant tendencies toward digital or self-referential artwork. She feels this fosters a nihilistic outlook—something that, as an artist, she does not wish to contribute to.

To set herself apart, Daignault looks for subject matter outside of her studio, exploring ways to imbue her images with meaning. For past projects, she has painted the sky every day for a year, an outdoor clock at every hour, and the same view of trees for 40 days and nights. Such endeavors require uncertainty and endurance, and in completed works, this translates to a sense of narrative and emotional weight.

Her latest venture is by far her most ambitious in physical and temporal scope. Last spring, Daignault set out on a six-month journey around the circumference of the United States, documenting the landscape every 25 miles. Arranged in one row that corresponds with her route, the 360 enusing paintings are now installed together for the first time at Lisa Cooley gallery, as a single, whole work entitled Light Atlas.

In the planning stages, she considered how her gesture might subvert the male-dominated lineage of exploring America. Separately, she hoped to make a case for painting as a vibrant and fresh means of documentation in an era where photographs are in endless supply. Upon her return, Daignault revisited each scene in chronological order as she filled in the under-paintings made on the road, relying partly on her memory of colors and other details. The result reads like a filmstrip that begins after she heads north, out of Brooklyn. The first stretch of the trip show signs of spring emerging amid grey skies over the northern boarder, and soon shifts to the California redwoods. The Southwest stands out for its sun-soaked, stark desert terrain; Florida, for its aquamarine ocean. The final frame depicts Manhattan’s skyline from the south, and, even as a far-removed gallery visitor, the triumphant glow comes through.

We met with the artist shortly before installation, when she told us it was her first time speaking about Light Atlas following its completion.

RACHEL SMALL: That isolation from being out on the road for so long, it must have been very intense.

CYNTHIA DAIGNAULT: Returning to New York, where I began, I noticed the reentry to socialized society felt like a mountain man coming out of the woods…I was in Union Square, thinking, “I’ve never seen so many people!”

SMALL: I feel like it’s the opposite too; when, I’m in the city for so long and I go to a more rural place where it’s more secluded, I’m like, “Why is it so quiet? What’s wrong?”

DAIGNAULT: Yeah, and then you can’t sleep…I know the feeling.

SMALL: So, I read that you started the project after you realized you couldn’t name any women who traveled the country for a creative project.

DAIGNAULT: I could name many women who travel or who work with America as a theme. I think it was more not being able to name canonical women, whose work is part of the American canon. There is William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Mark Twain, Stephen Shore, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, all of whom made these canonical works that define how we look at America. Not only do those works define the look of that time, but they answer the question of what America means. It’s not that I take issue with any of those works; I love them all. It was more the realization itself that is interesting, that kind of inequity or disparity became a reason to go. I was also interested in making a monumental work about America that comes from a real subject, from being in the country. What would it mean to do that in painting, now? Early examples of that were all in painting. For example, George Catlin at the Smithsonian is famous for his Native American portraits. Looking at early America, paintings reported back to the people on the East who obviously had never seen, for instance, what the plains look like.

SMALL: People were so curious about what was out there when it was still so mysterious. I feel like it parallels our fascination with, say, when we see a photograph taken by a satellite from deep space. Like, what’s out there?

DAIGNAULT: I think that’s the legacy exactly. In the 20th century, the act of picturing America and that kind of on-the-ground reportage was taken up by photography, and that became its role when painting very much turned away from subject. I mean Robert Frank was shooting The Americans at the height of Abstract Expressionism. When painting was focused in the studio and on the essential elements of painting itself, Frank was out driving around America–and Eggleston, Shore, Friedlander, and so many others would take up that mantle [of being] on the road. Now, at a moment when photography is so pervasive that it’s been forced to grapple with its own identity and look inward, it feels like a natural moment for painting to look out, to reclaim that directive of picturing America. For me, going back to itinerant landscape painting, it’s not about returning to an older method, but about building on what happened in the 20th century in photography. And also highlighting what the differences are between a painting and a photograph in picturing space. I think those were the two main impetuses for the trip, to claim the right to both depict and define America, as a woman and as a painter.

SMALL: Yeah. First there was painting, then there was photography, but now we have so many photographs of the landscape. I mean, everything from Instagram to Google Street View. It’s thoroughly documented online, so coming back to painting and depicting landscapes, in this way, becomes novel.

DAIGNAULT: I think you hit the nail on the head of something that drives this project for me, but also drives my entire practice. We talk often about being in a media-saturated society, and we are surrounded by image streams. But it’s nihilistic. There’s a real randomness to all of it. One of the reasons I work serially, but also one of the reasons that I try to claim space in painting, is I’m desperately interested in asking: How can a group of images, or even two images, have meaning together? Whether they form a narrative, or a cause and effect, or greater theme. There are many options for how images can aggregate not to nihilism, but to significance, or to meaning. Painting is the chance to create a different space, or different way of picturing a literal stream of images.

SMALL: Getting back to the process, how did you start out?

DAIGNAULT: I felt that I wanted to do a piece about America, and that I wanted to do a piece from the road, where I would actually go somewhere. I’m not knocking this, but [nowadays] there is a lot of art about art, painting about painting. It’s like a digital Rauschenberg, both in studio-based photography and painting. So, I got really excited about doing work out in the world, and generating my own images. It felt like something we have left a little bit, as painters. And, America, why not? It’s something we talk about in politicized ways, but it’s not something that we necessarily talk about in aesthetic ways.

I set out in a pick-up truck. For 25,000 miles, you sleep in your car and you sleep in a tent and madness sets in and you have funny experiences and meet crazy characters. All of those things are there, but I really wanted the piece to not to be about me—not to be about my journey, but to be about the country.

I was more interested in the idea of universal context of landscape. I think it’s really interesting that we talk a lot about the death of regionalism in the country, due to monoculture. Stores are the same everywhere; small downtowns are done. Not just in America, but globally. You hear the same music on every station, all our building materials look the same, and all our clothes look the same. But I thought that it couldn’t be that simple, because Arizona is not Minnesota. There is this other reality, which is a reality of landscape. How many days of light do you get? How many months of winter do you have? That has to affect human experience and psyche, you know? What plants are there? What animals are there? What is light like there? On a surface level, regionalism is gone, if we define regionalism as human culture. But, what if we define regionalism as something older than human culture?

SMALL: But I feel like regionalism still exists in attitudes? Which is not something that comes through in paintings or photographs. But part of that is influenced by the landscape and daily weather–

DAIGNAULT: And the unseen history, or the burden of history. Absolutely. I don’t think that the piece sets out to present any grandiose thesis about the country. I think it reads as a fairly humble piece. I think it’s as much a piece about what’s left out as what’s there. The world is 360 degrees, and every time of day, and every minute before and after the minute I stopped isn’t there [anymore]. I think that it is a piece that acknowledges, in the way of consciousness, that we are bound by this finite set of images and experiences that we have. So, I think it is a piece that never denies that it is one subjectivity, [my own].

There’s the performative nature of it, [too], which at times is an endurance. I think that’s true of whether you’re casting sculpture or making photographs. There’s the Beckett quote, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” which what life is. It’s the everyday burden of trying to continue in the face of inevitable failure, but we do.

SMALL: How did you deal with the logistics of making 360 canvases while on the road?

DAIGNAULT: I planned so that on the road I would do drawing and under-painting and I would take photographs to record color and light. Then, I would do all the oil painting back in the studio. I mean, I’m not a masochist–making 360 oil paintings while on the move, stopping every 25 miles would be very difficult. But it wasn’t a compromise to make the paintings back in the studio–that was a purposeful act of reenactment. I made them in the same order, and that parallel journey in the studio became an opportunity to let emotion and memory steer the work more than just mimesis. The studio time was the first level of critical distance to come into the piece. Back in the studio, I already knew the arc, and the outcome. I knew what was coming. So I could more easily lean into meaning, to create memes and motifs, themes and emotions. Like, I would know if a barn was going to mean a lot in the series because maybe there was another coming up in four canvases or the light hitting its side would tell some story about that time of day. I could be more purposeful, and start to build that narrative arc that takes a group of images from just a nihilistic picture stream to a meaningful aggregate. The next level of critical distance will be as the viewer walks around the piece, to reanimate it. They reenact both the drive and the making of the work, which is the remembering, the feeling, and the thinking. 

SMALL: I read an interview in which you mentioned how you fill in spots with your imagination and memory. I think, especially with travel, you end up remembering colors, sometimes smells, and what the sky and lighting looked like. The way you describe how you connect two barns in separate canvases that were near each other, or blend the color of the sky together across canvases, I feel like that’s how memory works. That’s how one remembers or recalls a couple of days…

DAIGNAULT: I completely agree. I think that that’s what strips away more of the nihilism and builds more meaning in, because I have already experienced the whole thing, and I already have the emotional pitch or chord for the piece, which then I can hold onto.

SMALL: If it’s a question of reality versus human perception, it’s almost paradoxical to say that the “real” reality is different from the way that the human mind remembers it…Because what the human mind remembers becomes equally as real, existing in the mind, and there would be nothing whatsoever if the human mind couldn’t perceive it in the first place.

DAIGNAULT: I love the idea that the moment is instantaneous and lost immediately. But, the memory of the moment is actually the more lasting of the two, you know? I love this quote from Picasso, where he paints the painting of Gertrude Stein, and he presents it to her at a salon. And he unveils the painting and Gertrude Stein said, “Well, it looks nothing like me.” And Picasso famously quips, “Oh, but, it will.” Depiction can override truth the same way that memory can override experience. Artworks, whether fiction, music, or painting, because they have the power and possibility to become truth, when repeated enough or told enough–like Kerouac’s On the Road or Eggleston’s photographs–are somehow truth about what America is, whether they were or not.