Flinty, weary, heavy: collectively, the dominant mood of the 2021 New Museum Triennial is distinctly sober. That’s understandable as many of the works (by 40 emerging artists and collectives from 23 countries) are products of a troubled, turbulent moment. Nevertheless, even as the show generally foregrounds the complex weight of history, a sense of embodied weariness, and a general existentialism, it’s lightened by several unexpected local grace notes. And central to its effect are works by two artists with strong Baltimore connections.
Begin on the fourth floor: as the elevator doors open, seven sizable canvases by Baltimore-based Cynthia Daignault stand before you. Painted gesturally, in a range of grays, they depict trees that witnessed Civil War battles and still live today, implicitly testifying to a lingering national trauma. But Daignault is not suggesting mere continuity here. Six of the paintings also include houses or fences, referencing an ongoing process of maintenance, framing, and reframing. In turn, emphatic black frames surrounding the paintings intensify the senses of mediation and rhetorical distance.
If you get close enough, the painted forms begin to dissolve into purely abstract mark making, generating an ethereal effect. In that sense, it’s worth pointing out that the structure of Daignault’s series softly echoes Robert Rauschenberg’s seven-panel White Painting, a monument in the history of abstract painting. Despite the presumable solidity of the massive trees that are their subjects, these are also clever evocations of the abstract nature of history and of the ghostly insubstantiality of memory. The past may be too much with us, as they say—but it cannot be simply grasped.