Cynthia Daignault, Neighbor, 2015, oil on canvas, 12 × 9".

Cynthia Daignault, Neighbor, 2015, oil on canvas, 12 × 9".

Cynthia Daignault

Rowhouse Project

Cynthia Daignault, Neighbor, 2015, oil on canvas, 12 × 9".

Cynthia Daignault’s “Home. This must be the place.” was the fifth installment in a three-year series of site-specific shows that will cumulatively constitute the Rowhouse Project. Every season a new artist occupies 2640 Huntingdon Avenue, a row house in the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore; each installation coincides with a new stage of a very slow-going renovation. As of summer 2015, the house was still in the process of being stripped down. Refrigerator, stove, blinds, curtains, ceiling fans—all gone, along with various layers of paint and linoleum. But much remained: a claw-foot tub and a wisp of plastic ivy in the bathroom; whitewashed kitchen cupboards (stocked with Natty Boh, the official beer of Baltimore); charming if stained and dilapidated wallpapers now seeing the light of day after years of concealment.

Daignault populated the first floor with portraits of the house’s neighbors. On the second, she hung a frieze depicting the block’s architectural facades; a series of paintings capturing details of the house’s current interior (irregular remnants of wallpaper and paint, an abject stain that would appear as abstraction were it not for the context); and another suite of lush green foliage (as observed either immediately outside or looking out from the windows). The tone was nostalgic, the exhibition a love letter to a working-class neighborhood representative of a city in flux, a record of this moment. In her artist’s statement, Daignault, who lives in New York but was born and raised in Baltimore, explained how she returned to her hometown to make the paintings, turning the house into her studio for a month in late May and early June. She characterized her engagement with this space and place as “institutional empowerment”—most explicitly demonstrated by her decision to give the portraits to their respective subjects at the end of the show’s run. But the installation additionally came across as an embodiment of the ambivalence of artists who know they participate in the gentrification that both destroys and preserves—or reinvents—the character of places they love.

“A year from now, everything will be different,” writes Daignault. The question is, How different? Gentrification does not operate the same way in Baltimore as it does in New York. For years apparently on the brink of major revitalization, Baltimore has stayed relatively inexpensive—and volatile (this spring’s protests following Freddie Gray’s death were testimony to enduring unresolved tensions). But the city’s affordability has attracted a growing community of artists and helped to create a vibrant art scene. Notably, the city’s artist-run (or, in this case, collector-run) spaces have strong ties with New York, often providing New York–based artists opportunities for solo exhibitions. (All the artists participating in the Rowhouse Project thus far have come from New York.)

If the sluggish pace of the Rowhouse Project’s renovation may be taken as emblematic of the glacial processes of gentrification in Baltimore, Daignault’s “Home. This must be the place.” epitomized a certain fraught relationship between artist and location. The title thematized Daignault’s uncertainty, as if she were trying to convince herself that this city must be home when she knew that sentiment wasn’t quite right. Daignault loves Baltimore with a “ferocious passion,” but she’s aware that the utopia of diversity she portrays in her portraits—and the oasis of bucolic urbanism evoked by her views of sun-dappled architecture, verdant trees, and even the beauty to be found in musty stains—is elusive. Daignault surely knows better than to uncritically glorify the joys of authenticity, yet Baltimore is her uncanny. Here she can experience nostalgia for something that still exists.

Bibiana Obler