Cynthia Daignault: There Is Nothing I Could Say That I Haven’t Thought Before

The artist's conceptual paintings push the limit of the medium one step further

By Scott Indrisek

Barbara Kruger, 2016, oil on canvas, 91 × 71 cm. Courtesy the artist There is nothing I could say that I haven’t thought before, 2017 (installation view). Photo: Object Studies. Courtesy Flag Art Foundation, New York

Flag Art Foundation, New York, 19 January – 13 May 2017

Via the three complementary series on show here, Cynthia Daignault proposes a form of conceptual painting that doesn’t abandon craft, and even has room to reinvigorate fusty genre mainstays like the floral still life. The result is an exhibition that is cerebral without being obtuse – and one that offers a way forward for fellow artists who want to push the medium without murdering it outright.

The sinew connecting these bodies of work is a sense of networked community. For the largest series, There Is Nothing I Could Say That I Haven’t Thought Before (2016–17), Daignault painted various artworks – by the likes of Charles Ray, Barbara Kruger and Julia Wachtel – that have moved her in some way, all executed with polite, methodical daubs. It’s a chance for Daignault to flaunt her painterly chops in small, delicate moments: the wavy peacock-feather strands in a reproduction of a Carol Bove assemblage; the tender, stroke-by-stroke composition of a man’s beard in a rendering of a Roe Ethridge photograph. Much like Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935–41), which allowed the artist to miniaturise and package his own work, There Is Nothing I Could Say… is a way for Daignault to construct a portable museum of her own idiosyncratic, wandering taste.

Another museum is the subject of a second, less celebratory series, MoMA (2017). For that, Daignault quasi-scientifically determined which of the New York institution’s canvases are the most popular. She then converted each disparate work into a text-based painting, with the monochromatic backgrounds alluding to the predominant tonal palette of their source. They resemble Richard Prince’s joke paintings at first glance, or the date paintings of On Kawara (a work of his from 1969 has a cameo here). Daignault’s summations of MoMA’s greatest hits reverse the ‘picture is worth a thousand words’ adage and instead relay the spirit of an image with spare phrases that one could, in most cases, stuff into a tweet. Some have the light touch of a William Carlos Williams verse – ‘The sound of regret, or of falling into a leather chair’ (Ed Ruscha’s 1962 Oof ) – while others have a beat edge, as with Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948): ‘Heritage farmland. We painted this country a flat color field of grass. You can’t go home again.’

If these first two groups of paintings are about Daignault exercising control – over the works of others, and over the master-narrative of art history – a final series, The Certainty of Others (2017), finds her letting go of the wheel. She invited ten of her peers to reconstruct one of her own canvases – a small-scale rendering of colourful flowers in a jar – and then gathered the results (minus the original). Some people – TM Davy, Daniel Heidkamp, Todd Bienvenu – play it straight. But Dylan Vandenhoeck disappears his flowers in a cloudy haze; Gregory Edwards flips the composition sideways, and lops half of it off; Conor Backman disregards the figurative altogether, presenting instead a tangled smear of what might be pastel toothpaste.

The sense of obsessive repetition, of slight variations on a common theme, mirrors a work that Daignault pays homage to in There Is Nothing I Could Say…: one of the countless water glasses painted, with near-religious devotion, by Peter Dreher. In fact, that German artist and his confoundingly beautiful cups float over this entire exhibition as a kindred spirit, a believer in the ways artists can achieve the unconventional through entirely conventional means. 

From the April 2017 issue of ArtReview