At North Farm
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?
- John Ashbery
Lisa Cooley is proud to present Cynthia Daignault’s third solo exhibition with the gallery, Light Atlas. In 2014, Daignault embarked on a yearlong exploration of America. This road trip and the resulting paintings form her most ambitious and epic work to date, Light Atlas. Consisting of 360 paintings, one for each degree of the circle she traveled, Light Atlas chronicles the view every 25 miles around the country. A grand portrait of America, the work stands as the centerpiece of the exhibition, filling the entire main gallery and spanning over 300 linear feet.
Light Atlas originated from an offhand conversation in which Daignault realized she could name 100 men who roamed the country to create the canonical works that depict and define America: Catlin, Cole, Twain, Guthrie, Dylan, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Evans, Frank, Eggleston, Shore, Smithson, Ruscha, and so on. Yet she could not name one such woman. At a moment when inequity is at the center of the American public discourse, Daignault wanted to assert her own rights to agency and opinion—to move freely through the country and to voice a comprehensive thesis on its identity. “Not just a room of one’s own anymore,” she explains, “but a whole world.” Light Atlas began as a drawing. Daignault traced the route she would take on a road map, snaking a thin pencil along the outside border of the continental United States. Then she drove the loop, on blue highways and back roads, avoiding interstates and stopping every few miles to get out of the car—look, paint, walk, or just sit. Traveling over 30,000 miles, across forests, deserts, mountains, and fields, she followed the road for a year.
The resulting document of the journey, the paintings, depicts the breadth of American light and land. Installed in the gallery, edge-to-edge, the canvases align by a shared center horizon, tracing the circumference of America. LightAtlas expands into a metaphorical filmstrip. A zoetrope. A cyclorama. Daignault defines its structure as long-form painting, more akin to a novel, film, or epic poem. Often using serial forms, Daignault forges meaning across groups of images, opposing the nihilism ever-present in the randomized picture streams of contemporary life. Humanist and non-hierarchal, no single canvas stands above any other and significance rises only from the meaningful whole. At a distance, Light Atlas paints a holistic portrait of America, revealing slow shifts in hue, atmosphere, typology, and topography—a color wheel mapping verdancy to desert, and forest to farm. Its images construct an index of American memes: plant and animal, architecture and industry, wealth and poverty, depth and proximity, wildness and domesticity. Yet up close, as the viewer glides down the row of paintings, as if trailing the long white line of a highway, the frames animate a more intimate, temporal, and filmic account. Daignault weaves a dense multiple narrative, intercutting the parallel stories of the journey, the creation of the work, and the grander fiction of America itself, all recounted with an unmistakable love of painting and place.
Light Atlas reads as an odyssey whose protagonist is America. Born of the American desire to go west and understand the meaning of the country through the meaning of its land, the piece explores the changing role and significance of landscape. In a time of rapid climate shift and resource depletion, when lives are lived increasingly inside and online, the meaning of physical land is changing, altering the identity of America itself. Gone like the wild buffalo is the romantic sublime of Manifest Destiny. Now, when all landscapes appear in a state of flux and fragility, exactly what destiny will manifest is no longer so certain. Daignault posits that today, the sublime emerges from the vernacular aggregate and the meaning of the country from the populist assemblage of the everyday: late light on the side of a white house, diffuse fog in a stand of redwoods, and stout cows before a lone red barn. Here, America appears as an unpeopled land, abandoned and vulnerable. The country subsists more in commemoration than live action, as in a dream, memory, or monument, or as after the hypothetical apocalypse. There is only one consciousness in the work: the witness. The eyes in the mind, the driver inside the car, ever absorb the unceasing imagist string of moments, each as meaningful and meaningless as the last—life—as the view through a moving window, prosaic and fleeting, then gone.