Cynthia Daignault’s practice combines analytical procedures and strict discipline of conceptual art with easel painting in traditional realistic style, and poetic and deeply personal writing. It results in hybrid artworks that appear simultaneously lyrical and systematic, innocent and contrived, conventional and thought-provoking. Daignault’s new painting installation “Light Atlas”, now on view at Lisa Cooley Gallery, is pervaded by such contradictions.
The installation consists of 360 canvases measuring 8 x 10 in, and takes up the entire front room of the gallery. The paintings are hung close to each other in a single row stretching across the four walls of the room. Each painting features a landscape – a ploughed field, a city skyline, an empty bus stop at the side of a road – and while every image is different, the sequence appears to present a continuous view, with the horizon line running exactly through the middle. As the viewer walks along the row of canvases, the landscape will change slowly and steadily, one type of scenery morphing into another: the seaside (beaches, palms, bungalows) into the suburbia (parks, quiet streets); the prairie (a lonely house, cows grazing) into the mountains, their snow-covered picks first far on the horizon, moving closer, then stepping back again, disappearing. There is a hypnotic quality to the work, a strange sensation of simultaneously moving and staying still, the view both shifting and static. Crafted with skill and confidence in thick dabs of oil paint, the paintings have a casual, matter-of-fact quality, as if they were made from observation, perhaps on a road. The impression is both accurate and misleading, and is one of the contradictions of “Light Atlas”. Observation and documentation are indeed part of the piece: in fact, Daignault spent six months traveling around the circumference of the continental United States, driving her truck on the back roads and small highways, stopping every 25 miles to document the view through drawings, preparatory paintings and photographs. The works comprising the piece, however, were finished months later, in the artist’s studio in Los Angeles. Far from being straightforward documentation, “Light Atlas” is a reconstruction of the artist’s vision of American landscape drawn from observation and memory.
The gallery’s press release introduces the installation as a “grand portrait of America,” and as any portrait, “Light Atlas” is notable for its biases and omissions. It shows the country in bright daylight; there are several scenes that may depict evenings or early mornings, but no nocturnal views. The days are uniformly pleasant, mostly sunny, and on a few occasions, overcast; one image shows a rainbow, but we see little or no traces of rain, wind, or any kind of inclement weather. There are no people anywhere, although we see cows, and buffalos. There are some indications of America’s economic and social life: we see farms, oil refineries, and freight trains moving across the plains; we see the fine houses of an affluent neighborhood, the run-down buildings of a shabby little town, a closed store, a roadside diner, a trailer. Although these and other details hint at the country’s heterogeneous character, the overall view of America as conjured by the cyclorama is that in which different topographies, environments, communities, and social groups coexist in natural harmony, with no visible fractures or clashes, in the light of a never-ending day of America’s prosperity. Such image of America as a vast fecund land abounding in natural wonders and picturesque views (mountains, rainbows and buffalos being among the most recognizable tropes) is remarkably familiar: this is America of Emerson and Thoreau, of the Hudson school and Manifest Destiny.
The artist’s intentions are somewhat clarified by a companion piece presented in the gallery’s project space. Made in collaboration with photographer Curran Hatleberg, it consists of two slide projectors displaying sets of 35 mm slides, accompanied by musical score composed by William Morisey Slater. Titled “Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you”, the piece has been produced through a series of precisely choreographed actions: Daignaut and Hatleberg drove the same route between New York and Los Angeles, beginning on the opposite coasts and passing through Lebanon, Kansas – the geographic center of the Unites States – at a previously agreed time. After a 15-minutes meeting, the two artists proceeded with their respective trips, driving the same roads and staying in the same motels .The black and white photographs documenting their parallel journeys and projected on the opposite walls of the back gallery, echo the images of “Light Atlas” and fill in some of its omissions: they show rainy days and dark nights, encounters with different people, drab interiors of gas station bathrooms, roadside cafes and motel rooms. Supported by the musical score, the slide show is suspenseful and sad, full of longing and wistfulness. On this dreamlike trip, the past, the future and the present are all mixed up, and the travelers’ anxious anticipation of a meeting is inseparable from its nostalgic memory.
The longing, the vague sense of striving for something that cannot be retained, the expectation of a perfectly idyllic moment darkened by the knowledge of its inevitable loss – this romantic and perhaps slightly sentimental attitude is behind both of Daignault’s new works. Its implications for “Light Atlas” are especially interesting. In fact, it might help to explain the major incongruity of the piece: the radical performance of the artist’s round-the-country trip resulting in the outmoded format of cyclorama and defiantly conventional style of painting. This and other conflicts of “Light Atlas” may spring from the artist’s romantic desire to attain the unattainable, to create a portrait of something that cannot be depicted, at least not in a conventional way. The project offers a monumental image of America only to demonstrate that no such single image will be perceived as authentic by contemporary viewers, conscious of the political, racial and social tensions splitting the country. “Light Atlas” is a fantasy; it is a quixotic journey of an artist “traveling furiously” around the circumference of the United States in search of America as it has been frequently imagined, but can never be found in real life.
Cynthia Daignault: Light Atlas at Lisa Cooley Gallery
November 1, 2015 – January 10, 2016
107 Norfolk Street
New York, NY 10002
Writing by Tatiana Istomina