Cynthia Daignault is always confounding our ideas about the nature of painting—and asks if it has an essential nature at all. In her latest show, The Pure Products of America Go Crazy, at CAPITAL in San Francisco (a sort of return home for a prodigal daughter educated at Stanford), she has done it again. Daignault has placed seventy oil-on-linen paintings like dinner plates on six tables throughout the gallery space, orienting the viewer to look at the works from above. The idea of painting as a still life with its own subjectivity, as a stand-in for itself as a common utilitarian object, is another radical move on Daignault’s part.
In her past project Light Atlas (2014), a result of a yearlong road trip throughout the United States, the artist explored the social and geographic characteristics of paintings as what she calls “place settings,” or stakeholders—as objects that create meaning from particular representations of claims to space. Daignault’s odyssey resulted in an epic portrait of the country in the form of 360 paintings, which spanned more than 300 linear feet of wall, filling the gallery from edge to edge. Prior to embarking on this project, Daignault realized that she could name over a hundred canonical works that depicted and defined the country, all produced by men: Twain, Dylan, Guthrie, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Evans, Ruscha, Smithson, and so on. Light Atlas is a feminist corrective and as close to a performative as painting can get.
As in all of Daignault’s painting–installations or painting–performances, each painting in The Pure Products of America Go Crazy can be experienced as an individual work or as part of a larger theoretical and optical puzzle. The artist explained that the work was made “100% post-election,” as she was reckoning with the new order of things in a “deep fog,” and the fuzzy images of the series Matrix (2017)—based on front pages of U.S. newspapers that feature headlines and photographs of Trump’s victory—can be read as trembling reproductions of horror. Alternatively, they can be read as the current U.S. condition and in relationship with violent pop-culture icons, such as the machine-gun-toting Rambo or Schwarzenegger depicted on a round plate set on an adjacent table. They prompt the question: Whose dinner party is this?
The artist’s reverence for art history and her playful resistance to its authorial discourse are made evident in references to heavy hitters such as Judy Chicago (a queen mother of feminist art and the maker of The Dinner Party, 1974–79) and Marcel Broodthaers (a conceptual-art mastermind and the creator of Department of Eagles in Brussels in 1968). The two figures symbolize polar opposites and are represented here, the former by a plate with a Georgia O’Keeffe–style vaginal form, part of Dinner Party on the Eve of My Conception (Or: We Were Born Under a Dark Star) (2017), and the latter by a picture of an American bald eagle, in a series titled Reading Room (Belgium) (2016). Standing out as an oddity is a portrait of Karen Carpenter: Is it a random marker of 1970s pop culture or a doppelgänger of the artist?
Daignault operates with the idea that her painted objects are “dreams or feelings,” but nonetheless her exhibitions remain within a semantic and representational logic. She has been called “a poet of a painter” by the New Yorker, and the exhibition title is a line from a poem by William Carlos Williams. Is Daignault suggesting that her methodology is like that of the Imagist poets, whose aesthetic manifestos proclaimed, “‘Imagism’ does not merely mean the presentation of pictures. ‘Imagism’ refers to the manner of presentation, not to the subject” and the “direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective.” She explains, “All my text works (whether painted or typed) are hybrids of painting/writing/drawing. But the question is if the work wants to relate more closely with painting or with writing, if it wants to be an image or a text.”
Indeed, filling the back gallery is Daignault’s most literary and psychographic exploration of thingness to date: a series of framed, typewritten lists, entitled The Impalpable Sustenance of Me from All Things. In these works that resemble 1960s conceptual art, Daignault creates portraits of the women in her life by carefully cataloging the contents of their purses: reading glasses, tissues, Burt’s Bees lip balm, one blue bag with panty liners, tampons, CeraVe cream, Weleda Skin Food, hair ties. The lists are like another form of still life. Daignault plays with Freud’s famous interpretation of Dora’s purse as a vagina—a metonym for gender, sexuality, and economics—the purse-as-vagina-as-purse. Daignault’s desire for a current feminist interpretation seems so urgent that the title for her new artist book (in newsprint, like vintage Village Voice or Bay Guardian papers, and available as an exhibition handout), A–Z Volume 4: The Feminine Mystique, confronts second-wave feminism with first-100-days-in-office feminist rage.
Purse- (or pussy-) snatching has never been more of a political commentary than in this election year’s re-visioning of Betty Freidan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. In this show, Daignault seems to be emptying out her own bag: Trump, Freud, California landscape, gender, sex, psychology, capitalism, objecthood, still life, vaginas, and painting in the era of post-Obama traumatic stress.
Cynthia Daignault: The Pure Products of America Go Crazy is on view at CAPITAL in San Francisco through April 22, 2017.
 Interview with the artist, March 28, 2017.
 Interview with the artist, March 28, 2017.