Inspired by American travelogues of the past—and realizing that the canon consisted solely of works by men—Cynthia Daignault set out in 2014 to travel the United States for a year by car. She followed a back-roads route around the perimeter of the lower 48, avoiding interstates, and stopped every 25 miles, at each point recording the scene before her with paint or with a camera, the latter providing source material for paintings she made later in the studio. The 360 oil-on-linen paintings in the resultant body of work, titled Light Atlas, share a compact, uniform size (8 by 10 inches) and combine impressionistic strokes with vivid photographic tonality. Together, the paintings offer a kind of portrait of America, as seen in her recent show at Lisa Cooley, which featured 155 of them hung side by side at eye level.
As Daignault progressed through her journey—which started from her Brooklyn stoop, continued up the northeastern coast and proceeded westward—her eye repeatedly wandered toward man-made things, like those favored by painter and photographer Charles Sheeler. A stone wall runs through a Connecticut scene; in several other paintings, old barns and clapboard houses are portrayed frontally, parallel to the picture plane, which makes them appear modernist; rustic farm silos materialize elsewhere, and, on one canvas, we see a distant grain elevator and concrete silo complex beside a stream, the image recalling Sheeler’s American Landscape (1930), which depicts the Ford Motor Company plant along the Rouge River outside Detroit.
Daignault’s evocation of Sheeler in this series, whether intentional or not, is interesting. The New England artist depicted distinctly American subjects—primarily objects and architecture, never people—in ways that seem to glorify industry and notions of progress. While Daignault’s images likewise portray American subjects, they have an elegiac quality rarely seen in his work. Her paintings not only offer mundane scenes but also—particularly with images of isolated roadside structures, dilapidated buildings and graffiti-strewn walls—attest to a complicated notion of contemporary America, to a place that bears the effects of time, of class struggle. Daignault’s series, then, serves as both a portrait of America today and a commemoration for an American optimism of the past, one that today seems far too simplistic.
The rear gallery held Daignault’s 2014 slideshow collaboration with photographer Curran Hatleberg, Somewhere Someone is Traveling Furiously Toward You (titled after a line from a John Ashbery poem), which features a musical score by composer William Morisey Slater. Two 35mm projectors advance through road-trip snapshots (windshield views showing roadside signs, barren landscapes and the like) from the two artists’ synchronized drives, over the course of one week, from opposite sides of the country on the same coast-to-coast route: Daignault left from New York, Hatleberg from Los Angeles. The artists stayed in the same motels and used the same kind of photographic equipment. When their paths intersected in Lebanon, Kans., as planned, they drove right past each other, continuing toward their destinations. Daignault and Hatleberg’s act of foregoing a mid-country, face-to-face interaction serves as a poetic portrayal of two ships passing in the night.