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. Light Atlas expands into a metaphorical filmstrip. A zoetrope. A cyclorama. Daignault defines its structure as long-form painting, 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 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 narrative, intercutting 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.
The exhibition also contains Daignault’s first collaborative work with photographer Curran Hatleberg, Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you. During the monumental road trip Daignault undertook to make Light Atlas, she was gripped by the idea of the individual in a car as a metaphor for the individual consciousness inside the body. Thus, two cars passing on a road might parallel two friends, lovers, or strangers, each with a unique and irreconcilable subjectivity. Two drivers on the same road, might see all the same places and landmarks, yet they will never see the exact same sights since light, weather, position, direction and time will never overlap.
Daignault and Hatleberg conceived a multi-stage work to articulate this concept. Beginning on opposite coasts and driving the same route between New York and Los Angeles, each artist spent one week documenting their personal experience on the road. Drawing the shortest non-interstate path through the geographic center of the United States—Lebanon, Kansas—they embarked from opposite points at the exact same time to eventually pass each other in Lebanon, and then keep driving. They stayed in the same motels, used matching photographic equipment, and did not correspond until their brief meeting.
The resulting work is an immersive slideshow that stands as a document of a single event, recounted by two views that are at once parallel and subjective, redundant and variable. The artists commissioned William Morisey Slater to write a unique score for the work. Improvised without any direct knowledge of the subject of the slideshow, Slater’s score contains three disparate musical sections, each of which cycles with its visual counterpart, evoking the kinetic fascination, haunted displacement, and cogitative isolation of travel on the road. The work stands as a manifestation of parallax, the displacement of objects when viewed from different positions, as between two eyes. Even between lovers, content, narrative, and decisive moments are entirely subjective. We may spend years together, but we will begin life alone and die alone; the moments where we overlap or pass are inevitably fleeting.