Around Cynthia Daignault’s ‘Light Atlas’

Gregory R. Miller & Co., 2019


In 2014, American painter Cynthia Daignault (born 1978) traveled around the entire outside border of the USA, stopping roughly every 25 miles to paint the view before her. The resulting monumental work, Light Atlas, is a grand portrait of America in 360 canvases that reveal slow shifts in hue, atmosphere, depth, industry and economy.

This catalog reproduces every painting of Light Atlas at 1:1 scale, in a filmic retelling of her journey and of the country she circled. Daignault weaves a dense narrative, intercutting parallel stories of the journey, the creation of the work and the grander fiction of America itself. New essays were commissioned for the book by celebrated historians and writers Alexander Nemerov and David Campany, approaching the piece both in its relationship to the history of painting and photography.

Published by Gregory R. Miller & Co., 2019


‘Around Cynthia Daignault’s Light Atlas’

by David Campany

A cycle of paintings. A circle of paintings. Complete and entire. How to enter Cynthia Daignault’s Light Atlas? Let us begin somewhere else.

In her suggestive little book Under Blue Cup (2011), the art writer Rosalind Krauss considers what has happened to the notion of the “medium” in the making of and response to art over the last generation or so. It was central to the modernisms that dominated much of the last century, but has it all really just dissolved into a generalized “post-medium condition”? Or is some idea of medium still shaping art and its interpretation? By way of a tentative answer, Krauss turns her attention to the work of the Los Angeles artist Edward Ruscha. For over fifty years, Ruscha has painted, made prints and books, and taken photographs. One might say he has many mediums, but Krauss wants to say it is really the car, the automobile, that is Ruscha’s primary medium. When he is not exploring L.A. and its environs in a car, or photographing from one, he is very often picturing a world shaped by the presence and effects of cars, “roadscapes” of one kind or another. Although the car rarely figures directly in his art, it is there, a spectral force that enables, influences, and helps to form Ruscha’s imagery.

Twenty-six Gasoline Stations was the young Ruscha’s archly deadpan, so-dumb-it-must-be-smart book of photos shot at stops along Route 66, between L.A. and his childhood home in Oklahoma City. He took those plain and simple images of gas stations in 1962, the year another Edward, Edward Hopper, painted one of his most mysterious and enigmatic canvases, Road and Trees. Ruscha was just setting out, but Hopper was approaching the end of his life. Like many great artists in their final years, he was determined to pare things back, to reduce his work to its barest essentials. The elemental Sun in an Empty Room (1963) is perhaps his best-known late picture, but Road and Trees works in a similar way, making something profound out of the nondescript. Hopper paints right across the middle of his canvas an uneventful stretch of rural highway. The road is edged by a forest, above which we see a strip of pale blue sky with wisps of white cloud. There may be a light breeze in the trees, but really this is an exquisitely still depiction of ongoingness, between two nowheres-in-particular. The proportions of the picture are just wide enough to suggest that the scene extends indefinitely, left and right, like a scroll or panorama, or a movie tracking shot. The representation of drama has given way entirely to an understated drama of representation. It is a scene with no significance beyond what the artist is able to bring to it. And he brings a lot. Indeed, the significance seems entirely related to the understatement. Out of a thoroughly underwhelming prospect, Road and Trees conjures a meditation on art, painting, representation, seeing, modern life, time, and mortality.

With his wife, the artist Josephine Nivison, Hopper took many trips around the country, and there is a lot of road iconography in his oeuvre (although Krauss may not want to go so far as to say that Hopper’s medium was his car). In an early study for Road and Trees, Hopper had in fact included a car, but decided to leave it out of the final canvas. The work evokes driving and cars, but it is not painted from the vantage point of a driver, or even a passenger. We see the road in the middle distance, from the point of view of a solitary someone who has perhaps stopped their car mid-journey, gotten out, wandered along and away from the road, turned . . . and looked to the road. Why? To see what it looks like from there, what it looks like without the car that made the experience possible. Maybe to paint it.

I am reminded of a remark once made by the photographer Harry Callahan: “Every artist continually wants to reach the edge of nothingness—the point where you can’t go any further.” In his late paintings, Edward Hopper was reaching for that edge in different ways. Spatially, pictorially, psychically. He put himself at the edge of nothingness . . . and painted it as the edge of nothingness.

Since cars get us from A to B, sooner or later even the most incurious of drivers will have at least one wide-open moment when they are overcome by the desire to stop en route to somewhere, to stop almost arbitrarily. Because they can. Because, on some primal and existential level, all places are as important as each other. You don’t even need to depict them for this to be so. Your being there is enough. Pull over in the middle of nowhere, even at random, step out from behind the wheel, and you will have transformed that spot into at least some kind of somewhere. Plain factual space becomes a place, embodied and symbolic. And in that process your sense of self is transformed too, if only momentarily. From background condition to present feeling, from preconscious to conscious, from limbo to affirmation. From an emptied self, to a full self, and back again, disappearing into the unfolding of all the in-between.

When asked what he was after in his later works, Hopper was at first silent. After some thought and with a little exasperation, he replied: “I’m after me.” Around the same time, the painter Philip Guston recalled something the composer John Cage had once told him: “When you start working everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”

There are many questions that could be asked of Daignault regarding her series of paintings Light Atlas. And perhaps I could have asked her and relayed some of her answers for you here. That way I might have been able to offer the kind of inside track that is so much a feature of how the knowledge and appreciation of contemporary art is supposed to work. Some artists even make their art knowing that the inside track will provide the key to what they have done, and maybe even complete it.

Those unofficial/official nuggets of information, coming not from the work itself, are what Gérard Genette once called a work’s paratexts: facts and anecdotes that are presumed to be more or less necessary to our engagement. The blurb on the back of a novel. An art-gallery press release. The trailer for a movie. A book review. A catalogue essay. I could have asked a lot of questions of Daignault, but I didn’t. Why ask the artist what the work itself asks? Aren’t those questions (and their possible answers) part of the perplexing pleasure of responding to art, responding in your own way? Cage once called this response-ability.

What to do we really need to know about Light Atlas? Daignault has made 360 paintings, all the same size and proportion, of views encountered around the perimeter of the United States of America. This equates to one painting for every degree of the compass, on average. The country’s perimeter adds up to 8,878 miles. Let’s call it 9,000. That’s one painting for every twenty-five miles, roughly. Maybe this is all we need to know. Maybe even this is too much.

Nevertheless, we may want to know when Daignault embarked upon this ambitious project, and how long it took her to complete it; whether the canvases were painted on the spot, en plein air, or painted from memory; or painted from photographs; or painted from memories of photographs. We may want to know what governed the choice of locations and scenes, and if they were made at specific intervals, at specific times of day. Whether or not she had a car. Whether she traveled alone. Whether the journey was made in one grand circumnavigation or in parts. We may want to know whether the task was a pleasure or a chore. Whether the 360 paintings are presented on the page and the wall in a specific order. Whether Daignault’s attitude to painting is testy or affectionate, and whether it changed over the course of the project. Is her attitude to the United States testy or affectionate, and has that changed? Does the artist prefer some of the paintings in the series to others, as we might? Is Light Atlas to be seen as a symbolic statement about contemporary America, and/or contemporary art, and/or contemporary painting? We may feel we want to ask if Daignault sees this project as gendered in a significant way; or perhaps as ungendered in a significant way. Is Light Atlas a response to the commonly male compulsion to encapsulate the nation in one great American novel, film, photographic book, or suite of paintings? Might Light Atlas link Cynthia Daignault to Walt Whitman and Philip Roth? To Edward Ruscha and Edward Hopper? And so on.

Would knowing categorically the answers to one or more of these questions deepen the appreciation? It is not that the questions shouldn’t come up, shouldn’t be asked. Of course they should, and they do. But perhaps it is best if they come up while looking at the paintings, and if they remain unanswered, or answered by each of us in our own way. Uncategorically, so to speak. The meaning of an artwork lies not in its origin, but in its destination.

When I am looking at Light Atlas, as a complete ensemble and then image by image, many of the thoughts I have touched upon come to mind. What is the medium here? Painting? Photography? The car? Was the project a pursuit of a sense of self, or an attempt to lose it? Am I being invited by the artist to some kind of edge of nothingness? And is this edge a real place, an artistic imagining, a state or mind, a sociopolitical circumstance?

These more philosophical queries tumble out of another set of much more prosaic thoughts prompted in the first instance by the individual paintings and then by Daignault’s overall system, as I imagine it. Given the sequence in which we encounter the paintings, and from what I know of the topography of the United States, my guess is that Daignault “started” in New York and worked her way anticlockwise, around the country’s periphery—coast, border, coast, border, coast—all the way back around to New York. My knowledge of photography and some general intuitions about perspective lead me to think that Daignault had a camera and was taking photographs at least as memory aids. The consistent width of the spaces depicted, and the consistent way these spaces recede, suggest to me that a camera of fixed focal length was involved. Somehow. The height from which we see these spaces is pretty consistent too, and it does not seem to be quite the height of a standing person. It may be that a camera was used from a car, pointing out through the window. Perhaps the edge of the canvas is the edge of a photographic frame, and beyond that, unseen, is the frame of the car door. I notice in one painting that Daignault has depicted what look like raindrops across the surface of the scene. They might be falling free in the air or running down window glass.

In May 1950, the photographer Walker Evans published in Fortune magazine a beautifully conceived photo-essay titled “Along the Right-of-Way.” In celebration of what he called in the accompanying text “the rich pastime of window-gazing,” he presented a suite of seven photographs, one to a page, in color and black and white. They were taken from trains gliding across various parts of the United States. Fortune was (still is) a can-do magazine of business and industry, so an eight-page ode to idle looking was quietly subversive in this context. The photographs evoked the aleatory glances of a leisurely traveler on the move. In truth, they were anything but casual. Evans had the railroad companies clean the windows in advance of his trips, and he worked hard to give his pictures just the right sensation of movement to suggest mobility while remaining clear. Taken together, the pictures give the impression of a sampling of the visible world.

Further into his text, Evans noted that these kinds of views offer up the country “in a state of semi-undress. You can see some of the anatomy of its living: a back yard with its citizen poking into a rumble seat for a trusted toolbox; an intent group of boys locked in a sandlot ball game; a fading factory wall; a lone child with a cart. Out on the plains, the classic barns and the battalions of cabbages.” A lover of lists, Evans’s multiple semicolons and sequenced photographs amount to a visual parade, seen by a viewer in passing, their attention grabbed by this or that arresting scene. But there are no people in Evans’s photographs, and quite deliberately so: the absence allows the reader to project those lives, like literary characters on a real-world stage. It also permits us to imagine Evans himself, author of the project, installed behind glass, enjoying the making of pictures, pretending to a mastery of all he surveys. Voyeurism is nothing if not the temporary fantasy that the world is presenting itself for your delectation, unfolding for your benefit alone.

Likewise, you will see scant human presence in Daignault’s paintings. She has seen and shown many plains, classic barns, and what could well be battalions of cabbages. Birds perch and glide, cattle graze, buffalo roam, and a deer stares back. There are Hopper-esque houses, Ruscha-esque gas stations, and cars abandoned in fields like dumped corpses. But there are no people. Cumulatively, however, this is clearly a human landscape, and the seeing of it has been shaped by a singular artistic vision, however enigmatic, and however masked by the anonymous gaze that so appealed to Hopper, Evans, and Ruscha.

A fluid gaze—contingent, roaming, almost random—is something we have come to associate most readily with photography. A lightweight and mobile camera allows for the taking of pictures in ways that can almost close the gap between noticing and depicting. Working systematically or serially in photography is quite different from doing this in painting. The automatisms that are intrinsic to the camera (blank indifference, the wholesale capture of more than you could possibly see, the cold rationality of optics, reproduction, and replication) are achieved at more of a cost in painting, and painting from photographs cannot entirely mitigate this. In the camera the light-sensitive surface goes from empty to full all at once. In painting the surface is built up. This affects what our eyes do when we look at photos and paintings. And maybe this is something else Hopper was getting at, and Daignault too: they seem to have relished the challenge of painting through eras in which vision itself was being so thoroughly transformed by the camera, over and over. Painting was never going to become obsolete, or relieved of figuration, but its redefinition is ongoing, and keeps it alive.

Light Atlas. Light as in not heavy? Or Light as in not dark, daylight, sunlight? Atlas as in map? Or Atlas as in archive, album, overview? Despite the epic scope, the grand circumnavigation, and the colossal time and labor involved, there does remain something disarmingly light of touch about Daignault’s project. Not ponderous or emphatically earnest, but outward and optimistic and open-ended. And maybe this has something do with her attention to light. It is light that is being painted here. Impressions more than things. Do these impressions amount to a map? They must do, no matter that “360” is but a rhetorical gesture toward impossible completeness.

Clearly 360 gives a better impression than 1. But while one painting might be able to present itself as an entire world, at least a world unto itself, serial imagery has the paradoxical effect of giving more while pointing to the voids in between. Daignault’s 360, arranged on separate pages or arrayed panoramically around gallery walls, are a lot to take in. Overwhelming, even. But they are separated by as many gaps. Gaps in which no painting exists, gaps representing spaces passed through, landscapes that eluded attention this time. No matter that Daignault chooses to butt these unframed canvases together along the gallery wall, so you get the impression of a continuous horizon connecting one picture to the next and the next; or that on the page the flow of reproductions might feel like frames from a road movie. The gaps are there. Imagine these 360 not on the page or on the wall, but out in the world. Imagine each painting returned to the place where it originated. Call it painting as Land Art. Site specific. Three hundred and sixty perfect little beads on a nine-thousand-mile necklace, so light it could disappear. An atlas of almost nothing.


David Campany