by Arthur Peña
September 06, 2013
Arthur Peña: I was caught off guard by your paintings. I immediately knew I was into them but didn’t necessarily know why. I read your writings, not really looking for hints but after wards everything came together. I think it had to do with the bountiful references and storytelling that happens in your writing. Can you talk about the role, if any, that your writing plays in making your work?
Cynthia Daignault: In a cross training metaphor, to engage in artistic processes outside of painting (writing, music, etc.) is to strengthen secondary creative muscles to bring that empowerment back to painting. This could be renewed ideas, interests or ways of thinking. Yet, perhaps most important for me, through writing I tapped back into a pure and unfettered love of creating - of communicating ideas and feelings through an aesthetic medium. As painting became professionalized, it became more fraught. Each painting felt anchored to my ego - to some sense of self-worth - purpose - success - meaning - and the stakes became correspondingly high. A failed painting could represent something crushing in that it doubled as some grand failure or my life or my choices or my future or my Self. It is an understatement to say that such thinking isn’t good for the work. It can lead to inaction, standing before a sheer mountain of fear, or worse over-thinking, strategizing a way up or around the cliff face. To write is to engage in a process in which I have no personal or professional stakes, where I allow some endless freedom to suck. It is transformative. I could be the worst writer in America - in the world even - and it wouldn’t matter to me. So what? I’m happy. I love it. I am throwing myself into it without any reservation because what reservations could there be in a world without consequence. I just make with honesty and enthusiasm, and the success of the endeavor is decided based upon terms which I alone set. It’s hobby mindset. And I needed to bring some of that Sunday garage painter vibe back into my painting practice - both for my own enjoyment of my life (one can only do so much sighing or binge drinking), and for the work, which wilts beneath the shadowy clouds of doubt. Every writing project is a casting off; I return to the paintings on a clear and cloudless day of infinite blue sky.
I could say other things on this that are less important or interesting, so I won’t. However, the one thing that feels really critical is the notion I have that the writing is my idea landfill. My Staten Island. The paintings need to be reductive - how much can I take out while still the works feel completely full - overflowing. The paintings need to be open-ended, non-didactic, minimal, elegant, not overly clever and essential. In that I get really excited about ideas, I have a tendency to over think and overwrite - and the early work probably suffered by cramming too many of those big ideas into the small box within the four sides of a painting. Hoarding. So writing became a practice of exorcism to get those ideas out of the paintings and into the world. Or actually more like a junk drawer. My apartment is minimal and immaculate. I don’t dig clutter - so there is nothing on the counters or shelves or tables. Yet, that order can only practically be achieved because there is that one drawer in the kitchen where all the myriad (yet critical) elements of homemaking must reside (the screwdrivers, tape, napkins, flash lights, scissors, and matches of this world). I need those tools, but I don’t need them strewn about on the mid-century furniture. When I started writing, it was like sweeping everything off the counter into that drawer. All the bits and bobs were together in one place where they needed to be, and the paintings were finally in state in which you might consider having a guest over for drinks. Essential minimal tidiness. The Martha Stewarting. The end of hoarding.
AP: When you do come to painting, the work is so fleeting; glimpses of possible sunsets, a painting that directs you to look at another painting across the room, screen shots of a paused distorted video. Fast edits, yet they are very much slow reads. What is it about this sense of “timing” that you ask the viewer to engage with?
CD: The question of time is paramount. Painting is intrinsically a durational medium. Every painting has an innate rhythm in its brush strokes and paint handling. Each drip of a Pollock suggests duration and the aggregate splatter a layering of tempo and timbre, as an orchestral score. The duration of the drips — of its making — is experienced in retroactive phenomenology. Painting is time-based. Certainly, this isn’t novel. Cubism and Futurism are all over painting as a time-based medium. Yet, post-cinema, the vision and theory of film—specifically around the frame or the cell—do effect how a viewer might experience space and time between two paintings, or within a room of paintings. Gallery as cyclorama - painting as frame. This is what interests me. The expanded frame. I suppose I’m less interested in an isolated image because I have single image fatigue. How many singular images do we look at daily (Instagrammatical). So to create real meaning across a series of images - as a film is composed from thousands of frames - is to construct meaning in a way that google image search cannot, outside of matching formalist memes or non-sequitur serendipity. A cat looks like a cat. A goat looks like a goat. A Judd looks like a box. Look - Dick Cheney and a potato. Nihilism.
What can happen between two frames, between two paintings? Some possibilities: that a series of frames aggregates to a durational animation; that between two frames of a jump cut lie unseen time or space or action; that a series of strategic edits might suggest a larger space never pictured. These hypotheses, along with others, are present throughout my work. The beam of light implied between the projections. The compaction of time in the Sky Clock. The scrim of a secondary hypothetical space laid over the White columns gallery. The exploration of so-called real-time in the CCTVs. When is now? How long is now? Where is here? I ask these questions over and over to different ends. I like this idea that we can read montage theory (Vertov or Eisenstein) back into serial art. Take Sol Lewitt’s 100 cubes. One hundred frames of cube. One hundred edits. The cube, whole, is never pictured, yet is constructed within the mind of the viewer by conceptual architectural animation. In that way, I suppose my paintings are fleeting. In the way that any one frame of a film slips away unseen and unnoticed in the flicker of projection, in the turning of a sprocket. Ephemeral in the way that any one of Lewitt’s cubes is democratized. The cumulative whole—the event—the narrative—the transcendental meaning—exists only in mind, constructed somewhere between vision and memory.
That - These - Time - Presence - Memory - Vision - Cinema - Space - are at the core my new show. Through these lenses, on one level I do read the show as an expansion of two ways that we experience time (which loosely could be read through film theory as montage and deep focus). The front room, eight paintings of walls, is real size, flat, vertical and frontal. It is the expanded moment, in which a single instant is stretched into a deep focus space through which the viewer can move - as around the rooms of Kane’s mansion. The singular moment is slowed down, pulled like taffy, turned over, and unfolded. Yet time is complicated by delays and repetitions, by tracers and inconsistencies, like tripping. Psychedelic singularity. The momentary experience of the present. The happening. Phenomenological time. Lived time. Acid Time. Life. The back room - 365 canvases - 365 depictions of the sky over a year - is the compaction of long durational time into a singular moment. Little windows. Deep receding space. Abstract time - a year - knit, folded and gathered into a portable, potable, and wearable instant. This is conceptual time. Collective time. The way we experience the past. Memory. Death.
AP: What did you learn looking up into the sky every day?
CD: Foremost - I learned that though I have always lived right below it, I have never seen the sky. A shocking fact really. I had been imagining a room of blue monochromes. Subtle and minimal, a fairly abstract piece about minimal shifts in the color of light. Not so. Turns out, there is a lot going on up there. Every day is an event—endless dramatic shifts in light and in color. Plus there are a lot of clouds. Like a lot. There were no repeats and very few monochromes. Accordingly, the piece became a lot more about paint handling than I had imagined, as mushing painting into clouds and light definitely puts your squarely in paint pushing 101. I like the sky as a subject. I like any subject where you begin from a position of failure. Obviously - no painting will ever capture the sublime complexity of the sky, the shifting prisms of lights, the passing majesty of clouds. It’s absurd. So from the start - in some traditional sense - I fail. The paintings will always fall short of their subject and as such deny a 1:1 relationship between object and subject. It’s a great short cut past questions of representation into more meaningful territory for me. Meaning - meaning. The piece can be about the sky - not the look of the sky - but the meaning of the sky - its significance.
What does the sky mean? How about this: People leave - they die - they run - they duck out in the night - they run to the corner store - they leave the room - they leave the state - they hop busses and trains - they go to Africa and Alaska - they go to prison - they break our hearts - they disappear. Are they coming back? Were they ever here? Looking up at the sky is an act of projection. Abstract and infinite. It’s a rift place - a stargate. Looking up at the sky is to commence astral projection. Looking up at the sky is to locate oneself in the sub-firmamental collective, life under the curvature. Looking up at the sky, you can send your mind across the infinity of a circle - across the orbital geometries of the horizon elsewhere. To the other side. To the past. To the future, the future that hasn’t happened and already happened and never will happen. Superman style. That is the premise. The premise is distance. The shape of air between two bodies. The compaction of time. The unreality of space. The permeability of absence. To project myself. Also to return. The premise is distance. The distance between two bodies. The Leaving. That one leaves, yet is never gone. Was never here. You leave. I leave. He left. She left. Even now I am leaving. Resolving into dew. The premise is the sky. That I look up at the big sky. The same sky. The sheltering sky. The clouds that float above us in the space between nothing and less nothing. Big sky looks down at all the people looking up at the big sky. I think of the big sky, and nothing matters much to me.
AP: After your done making, after you’ve looked at the sky and contemplated the ephemeral nature of all of this, after you’ve stared at walls and wandered in the absolute present, after you’ve made the work and it is all over for just a little bit, what do you do?
CD: First comes the release. The liberation from the perpetual state of doubt that envelops me in the weeks before a show. Surrounding light. The eradication of shadow. Encompassing whiteness. The first impression is one of great sadness. The work will neither be the disaster nor the masterpiece I had envisioned. There is so much to let go of. The divesting. As the days progress, I will come to see the work for the disaster and masterpiece which it is. Learning to love the artist who you are, not the one you would like to be. Each time, I have to do that again, each time.
Foremost, I try not to dismantle my life. Working toward something for two years leaves an immense vacuum of absence. It is likely akin to giving up nunning. Kicking the habit. Coming down from the alpine convent. Black Narcissus. It’s a manic clearing house. Burn it down. Burn it all down. Mania that is a bent on rebirth, but the sort that is predicated on total annihilation. The Phoenix state. I am Shiva the Destroyer. The Transformer. I buy motorcycles, call off weddings, travel to conflict zones and drink. Heavily. Rumspringa. This is to be avoided at all costs, as pragmatically I cannot crash my ship against the rocks every time I take my shore leave. I must find a lighthouse. I must find my way safely back home.
So, I start something new before I finish a show. Something that brings me back to the studio, that forces me to keep working. Charting the next course. Concurrent celestial navigation. Rejoining the Odyssey at once, for there is ever the danger that even after my shipmates are rescued, I might still remain on Circe’s island eating and drinking and fucking for an extra year or two. It is just so nice in the vast and vibrant world outside the dank ego cave of the studio. There is sleep. There are movies. There is sex and bourbon, parks and puppies, naps and beaches, eternal sunshine. There is expansive comfort outside the chocking Lands’ End turtleneck of narcissism. Breathing. Deep breathing. On the shore, on the island, there is always the danger that I might not return to the ocean - infinite and untamable, baneful and remorseless. Danger that I might be pulled into brackish currents that do not flow back through the studio. So after, at once, I begin again. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. And repeat.
Cynthia Daignault was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and currently lives in New York. She attended Stanford University, and was a MacDowell Colony Fellow in 2010. She edited the monograph on Sean Landers, Improbable History, which was published by JRP Ringier in 2011. Her work was featured in a solo presentation at White Columns in 2011. Daignault is a recipient of the 2011 Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant. Her solo exhibition, ‘Which is the Sun and Which is the Shadow?,’ opens at Lisa Cooley on Sunday, September 8th. Daignault’s latest artist book documenting the year of sky paintings will also be released on the 8th.
Arthur Peña (born 1982, Dallas, TX) is a painter and contributing writer to Arts & Culture TX, New American Paintings and ART HAPS. Peña received his MFA in Painting from RISD in 2012, his Post-Baccalaureate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his BFA from the University of North Texas. His work was exhibited in “Boom Town” at the Dallas Museum of Art this past summer and he will participate in the 2013 Texas Biennial at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum in San Antonio this fall, as well as open his new experimental art space WARE:WOLF:HAUS in West Dallas. Peña currently teaches at UNT and Mountain View College, and he lives and works in Dallas.