CYNTHIA DAIGNAULT by Cynthia Daignault
Each time I prepare for an exhibition, I read my bio. I make small changes, copy and paste and then send it out into the world anew:
Cynthia Daignault is an artist. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she is based in New York and Los Angeles. She attended Stanford University, was a MacDowell Colony Fellow and a recipient of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant. Her paintings have been the subject of numerous solo shows, including exhibitions at White Columns, FLAG Art Foundation and Rowhouse Project; as well as numerous group shows, including exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of art, MASS MoCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Fort Worth Modern, and the Brooklyn Museum. Daignault is an active writer. She is the founder of the publication A-Z, an editor of the Sean Landers monograph and the former associate director of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.
This blurb lists a factual timeline of my life. Yet, it says nothing about who I am as an artist or a woman. Leland Stanford. Edward MacDowell. Lord Baltimore. It is a roll call of men, patriarchal qualifiers, names suggesting that the good old boys and their legacies might endorse my own. Even my name, ‘Daignault’, is more a testament to Raphael Daignault (my great grandfather) than to myself. So, in my dissemination of this innocuous paragraph, I am a hypocrite. I complain about the hegemony of the patriarchy, yet look how I propagate its legitimacy every time I copy and paste my own bio into a book, magazine, or website. (As I have just done again…)
These men say nothing about my credentials as an artist. One, they’re dead and don't say much of anything. Moreover, they fail to recount the content of any good biography—the accounting—the ledger—the formulation behind summation. “Cynthia Daignault is an artist.” That statement is a fact. Yet, the becoming—the moment when hypotheses cemented into fact—did not happen in some string of notable accomplishments, but rather in the smallest, most untraceable, moments of epiphany and understanding. What would it mean to write a populist bio, a self-reliant bio, or a humanist bio? What would it mean to write a feminist bio?
This is an attempt:
My mother planted a large forsythia bush in the backyard behind our house. I remember that I liked to hide there, inside its shade, small under the hemisphere of blooming yellow boughs. I would push my back against the cold geometry of the house brick, watching flashes of sunlight strobe the damp and cake-like soil beneath my feet. Sometimes my dog, Butter, a three-legged golden retriever of exceptional merit, was there. We could stay beneath the bushes for hours, staring out into the radiating color field, leaning forward until the blooms filled my entire sight with the essential warm idea of yellow.
I have already failed you. Failed to get it right. Failed to capture this memory of Butter and forsythia and yellow. I am sorry. Let’s try something else. Another memory. This time I want you to try harder to imagine it, visual and specific, concrete and shimmering. I will paint you a picture: “I remember a sweet and monumental catalpa tree outside my childhood window. It had grown far taller than the house, shouldering the brick, eclipsing any world beyond with its ever-shifting dapple. In the summer broad velveteen leaves would lean their gentle density against the glass, occasionally flapping as if ears of an elephant.” Can you see it? Did I give you enough information? Did I give you the right information? Are you seeing what I saw? Am I? We are failing again. Yet, both of us this time. That’s progress. Really, what does failure mean for us? Maybe what I’m asking is: are we too eager to please? Too reticent to fail, disappoint or disgust? Have we become sycophantic? Yes Man? Suck ups? What if I don’t want you to be happy? What if I want something else for you, something more than vapid, fleeting pleasure? I’m reminded of a story. Picasso made a portrait of Gertrude Stein. When he presented her with the painting, she remarked that it looked nothing like her. To which Picasso quipped, “Oh, but it will.” Reality, image, text, memory, they’re slippery. And narrators—artists, curators, historians, paintings, books and photographs—are notoriously unreliable. After all, isn’t that what Picasso meant? So-called truth is easily replaced by an equally convincing account. That is to say: history will be written by the victors.
I remember drawing an apple once. When I was done, it looked like an orange, round and characterless, a mistake that confounded me. I know I wasn’t good at drawing in the ways that school measures such talents. In fact, I was terrible. At a formative age, maybe fifteen, we were asked to paint two pictures of the same still life: a lemon on a blue plate after Manet. The first we would paint with our dominant hand (my right), the second with our feet. When we hung them side-by-side, both of mine looked almost identical (aside from the tremor of brushwork on the foot painting). Both unmistakably mine. Factum Factum. I was astonished. Staring at the two, my art teacher walked over and whispered in my ear: “See. You paint with your mind, not with your hands.”
In 1998, the head of my painting department asked me what my major was. I told her art. Considering the poor execution of my paintings, she looked at me with pity and told me that I was very lucky to be working at a time when so many varied practices constituted 'art making'. I told her that I was a painter, that I had no interest in anything else. I told her that I had found my vocation (or that it had found me). I told her that I had discovered the one thing I looked forward to doing every day, that even when I find it torturous I keep going. Like living. Like Beckett: I can't go on, I'll go on. Long awkward silence. Then, she told me that I should really reconsider ‘computers’. I have seen the Graduate: Plastics. That’s what she was saying. This anecdote is nothing novel, nothing unusual; we will all live long enough to hear such words. Plastics. Yet, shame is a powerful emotion. Am I stubborn? Am I torturing myself? Self-sabotaging? Do I suck? Should I quit? Is it too late to quit? Am I too old? Can I still dedicate a life to “Computers”? Even now, the same questions linger. Yet what I’m really wondering is why are so many people so eager to tell us we suck?
Hippies call it an acid loop. It’s like a skip on a record where reality stumbles over the same groove over and over, until someone kicks the record player. Ostensibly this can be the result of taking too much LSD, but it can also be a function of encountering a singular moment, so intense, so catastrophic, or so beautiful that the brain stops to examine the world in deep-focus. One night in June, I was walking along the shore of glacial lake. Crepuscular twilight. Viridian green and Prussian blue. The rustle and clunk of cattails. And then time just stopped pulling me forward, or I stopped going along with it. I could see the lake beside me; the water was low, and the reeds rose from the ruddy depths of its sediments. I could feel the breeze, first touch my neck, and then drag a lazy finger over my temple toward the lake water beyond. I could hear something, low, rumbling and bovine. Frogs. “Do you hear that? You can just hear the frogs…,” someone said. Yes. Frogs. Sending my mind out to each one, to its pitch and direction, toward its cadence and intention, counting their voices. 3? 4? 5? Do you hear that? You can just hear the frogs. 4? 6? 2? Can you hear the frogs? Can’t you just hear the frogs? 7? 5? 1? Frogs. I could look left. Look right. Listen to my thoughts. Ask questions of myself. Am I dead? Will I die? Have I lost my mind? Will the night secede to day? Will I be the same tomorrow? Can you hear that? I stayed there for a very long time, turning the scene over and over, like a magician migrating a coin across his knuckles, counting. Minutes. Hours? Days? Yet despite that perceptual eternity, I still cannot tell you how many frogs were sitting on the shore on that lake.
I have a favorite painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s a large Vuillard. Window Overlooking the Woods. It’s a masterful landscape from a distant perspective: fields of crops, trees, some roofs, and a river or two. It’s quite large, maybe twelve feet long. The whole painting is rendered in muted earth tones, mostly green, verdant in the way of your average bucolic summer. Really—it’s a lot of green, an overwhelming sea of green, nothing else except three small dots of red in the foreground. In one of the houses, there is a tiny window. And inside the tiny window is even tinier person. And in front of the tiny person there is a tiny table with a tiny vase of tiny flowers. These flowers are poppies. Three bright red poppies. Three small dots of vermillion across an entire canvas of green. Those flowers are what the painting is about. All the green of the world doesn’t make any sense without the smallest dab of its complement. The red explains the green. Vuillard creates an incredible event around three of the tiniest brush strokes in a painting consisting of tens of thousands. That is humanism.
I once had a teacher who was known for making students cry. He was the type who would paint directly on your paintings in order to highlight your shortcomings. He came to my easel one day, displeased. He questioned why there were no clear lines, why there was no delineation of objects, why everything was foggy and muddled, mushy and wavering. I remember feeling ashamed. He went for my brushes, and yelled a loud absurdity: “Why, they’re all FILBERTS!” emphasizing ‘filberts’ like an angry snake. (Filbert is a brush shape, much like a golden retriever paw. Butter). “You need to buy some rounds and flats,” he said, “impose some hierarchy.” I was so embarrassed; I would take that shame with me, long into the future, always wishing my paintings would display more facility in rendering (like Courbet or Currin). Until one day, years later, that story came to my mind, unexpected, like bumping into an ex-boyfriend at the grocery store and realizing that after all these years you never really loved him. “Uck. What a slob, what a loser. What was I thinking?” I looked over and saw my brushes: all filberts, still. (Butter). Suddenly, what I had always defined as a lack, an inability to paint in some facile academic way, I began to see as willful denial. I never bought the rounds, or the flats, or if I did, I did not keep them. I don’t believe in heroism, in mastery, in the artist as singular genius. I don’t believe in delineation, and for that matter, I don’t believe in the possibility of knowing, of knowing anything at all. I was always painting guided by my own aesthetics, philosophy and beliefs, not by my failings or some imposed notion of greatness. It was then I knew: to become a painter you have to learn to love the painter you are, not the one you would wish to be.
This is a time without any words.
I specifically wanted to go to the artist residency in the winter. It seemed romantic to me. I imagined warm cocoa, snow and hours of studious productivity. I did not imagine all the crying. The studio was surrounded by impenetrable snow. It was isolated and uncannily silent. I was trapped there in a small room, for months, all alone, face-to-face with my work. It utterly broke me. I cried because I wasn’t good enough. I cried because I didn’t like my work. I cried about old boyfriends, and current boyfriends and future boyfriends. I cried about how little time there was, at the residency, and in life. I cried about the inevitability of death. I would shuffle to communal dinners in the evenings with the other artists, catatonic, everyone just nodding, knowing the situation without asking. They were in the same boat after all, bemused at our shared naiveté that you could come into the woods alone with your practice in the middle of winter and just work, happy and mindless, without a reckoning of some kind. Then, just like in Genesis, after six straight days and nights, I ran out of things to cry about. The question I had been asking all along “is this it?” was answered. “Yes. This is it.” I remember that morning so clearly. I took a deep breath and commenced working. I have never questioned that that was the day I became an artist, born into the world as all animals are, in the wilderness through a torrent of wailing and tears.
My mechanic Joe is a large man. Italian guy. Tall and big. He has a really small loveseat in his shop, tattered and oil-stained. He told me once that he slept on it for a year after his divorce. I have a couch just like it in my studio. I slept on it for a year too. It's a very loud room, with a subway right outside the window running every three minutes across the bridge to Manhattan. I don’t know how I ended up there so long, except to say that sometimes life gets away from us. Anyhow, one night, a loud hissing woke me. I could not quite see, but I could make out what I thought was a large blurry, fuzzy, black spider right above my head. I blinked and he was gone. Not sure if I dreamed it, I went back to sleep. It couldn’t have been real, could it? Then, the next night: “HSSSSS”. Again the menacing hissing. Again the large black, fuzzy and ominous spider. Huge. Just huge. Fierce and terrifying. I blinked. I watched as he scuttled away under the couch. Honestly, to this day I have no idea if he was a hallucination or if he was real. Either way, it doesn’t matter. He is a metaphysical spider. A sign. An oracle. “Time to go,” he’s telling me. “Leave the couch, the studio, the city. Time to rejoin your life.” And he was right. As with any oracle, you are required to heed the messenger right when they come to you, regardless of their form. So right then, in the middle of the night, I packed all my things, my studio and apartment and moved upstate without looking back. Of course, there are thousands of spiders upstate, but they are all happy to let me go about my business unquestioned.
I was lying in the grass behind my childhood home, staring at the sky, not looking at my father. I watched the clouds passing slowly overhead while he talked about logistics and I avoided his face. We were saying good-byes, and it was unclear if we would ever sit in the yard again like this, aimless and lazy. I was searching for some words of solace, for him, for me, something to fill the sinkhole of trauma. The big sky looked down at us, unnoticing. The clouds passed between us in the space between nothing and more nothing. We talked about loss and about absence, about distance, and time. About love and death. I told him that I would be with him, everyday under the same sky, the sheltering sky. And then we sat in silence for a long time. In those years, I had been working for Kara Walker, and in the face of her work, I had been wrestling with the idea of content. Kara’s work is so full of content—ideas, history, politics, gender, love and pain. It is specific and relevant, pulling in the whole world at a time when so much contemporary work is merely self-referential. At that moment, beneath the sky, experiencing the world through a veil of highly charged and complicated emotions, I thought for the first time, “this is content. I am experiencing content.” It is my job, my calling and my duty to make my work from that place. The next day, when he was gone, I looked south, toward his direction, watching the birds fly back and forth between us. I began to paint, not because I planned to, but because I had to. I would paint that scene every day for a year. That was the first day that I understood what it means to be artist. That was the first year. Content, honestly, and responsibility—not just to yourself, but to the world.
One time, a hummingbird flew into my studio and got caught in a massive spider web. He flapped around for a while and then gave up, totally limp. He was really twisted and I thought he'd broken a wing. I'd never seen a hummingbird stay so still. He was beautiful. I mean time stops when a hummingbird rests. I held him and he froze. I felt his heart stop. I wanted to cry. I untangled the spider web from his little feet. I thought they might break under the clumsy action of my wide and imprecise fingers. It took forever. The webbing was very sticky. I finished and I stepped outside to lay him in the grass, but when I opened my hand, he just flew away, instantly distant, straight into the sun, such that I couldn't see him anymore when he left the earth for the sky.