Painting a Portal

“Naudline Pierre: What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared’, & ‘This Is Not All There Is’

Naudline Pierre, Tell Me Where it Hurts, Oil on canvas, 66 x 48 in., 2020. ©Naudline Pierre, 2023. Images courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York.

ONCE, WHILE VISITING a friend who studied architecture in the Italian Alps, I tagged along on a field trip to the Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana just across the Swiss border. Looking out a facade of glass onto the Lago di Lugano, hemmed in by tapered mountains, we moved through an exhibition dedicated to the evolution of the sublime in landscape painting. Surrounding a triptych by Giovanni Segantini were dozens of landscapes—Turner’s romantic, thrashing oceans and Calame’s mountains which, extending beyond frame, seemed to blend into cloudy heavens—scenes in which nature was not a neutral backdrop but an actor, capable equally of calm and cruelty. This simultaneous horror and fascination are definitional to the sublime, from the Latin sub limen, meaning up to or just beneath the threshold, in limbo

It was this word which struck me the first time I saw the works of the Brooklyn-based painter Naudline Pierre (b. 1989, Leominster, MA). Pierre, who received her MFA in painting from the New York Academy of Art, has a second major solo exhibition opening in June at the Drawing Center in New York City. Her first solo show, What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared, took place in 2022 at the Dallas Museum of Art and included ten oil paintings dating from 2017 to 2021. Building on these works, This Is Not All There Is continues Pierre’s exploration of imagined worlds with new wash drawings in ink, acrylic, charcoal, and oil pastels. These layered drawings will be displayed alongside (and inside) sculptural elements, rendered in patinated steel, to immerse the viewer in a numinous environment.

The daughter of a Haitian preacher, Pierre creates her own mythology, reinterpreting Renaissance motifs of intertwined nude figures, celestial beings, and fallen angels in a bold, vibrant palette. At their center is a Black femme protagonist who appears in most paintings, accompanied by one or more winged figures. Angels or specters, they populate an otherworldly landscape in which elements, like fire and water, resemble but don’t behave exactly like our own. In Tell Me Where It Hurts (2020), we see our dark protagonist at center, consumed by a swarm of celestial figures and flames. Her head tilts upward towards an ultraviolet sky, where she embraces a gauzy angel. She is haloed, a kiss away from salvation.

I’m reminded of the speculative worlds of Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin: warped, harsh conditions navigable only to those evolved to inhabit them, and sites also to navigate the violent legacies of slavery and colonization, what theorist Christina Sharpe has called “the wake.” And while I’ve never been able to glean much meaning from the term Afrofuturist—unbounded as it is by genre and often retroactively applied—Pierre’s visual world seems similarly interested in forging a borderland, a place of encounter between history and futurity, harm and healing, the corporeal and celestial planes.

 Across paintings, the protagonist herself changes color, from brown-skinned to jewel-toned—magenta, emerald, the crimson of a wound.

Formally, this encounter is rendered through a process of layering, creating a gauzy surface through which many of the underdrawings show. In works like To Make You Whole (2021), “guardians” appear in varying levels of opacity. Some are disembodied, their translucent faces fixed to wings. Others take mythic or animal forms: fingers like fire, feathered feet. And in the shallow lake in the painting’s bottom third, two humanoid figures crouch in a queer embrace—one perhaps having taken human form to offer healing.

Naudline Pierre, To Make You Whole, Oil on canvas, 84 x 60 in., 2021. ©Naudline Pierre, 2023. Images courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York. 

In other paintings, these guardians have a more sensual, phantasmic mien. In Too Much, Not Enough (2019-20), our protagonist rests at center with an arm upraised. She is the color of a dying lilac, entirely nude. And beyond her, a cluster of shrouded figures with black feathered coats from which storm clouds emerge evoke a darker impulse: sex, perhaps, or violence.

“Mystery is so important,” Pierre said in a 2021 interview with critic and curator Legacy Russell, which appears in the catalogue for What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared. The layered planes of visibility preserve the interiority of all the characters pictured, who may show up (or not show up) as they please—a gesture inflected with frustrations around the particular demands on Black folks and Black femmes in particular. To be Black in the contemporary world (and especially in the world of contemporary art) is to be both invisible—in the gilded spaces of the gallery and the canon—and hyper-visible, summoned, occasionally and often after instances of devastating violence, to make grand pronouncements on the racial status quo.

In the same interview, Russell invokes a 1992 essay, Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity by Lorraine O’Grady, which discusses the racial dynamics of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1865). The painting was controversial in its time for the returned gaze of the reclining nude, and for the details which signify her as a Parisian prostitute. More recently, critics have called attention to the depiction of the servant woman in the background, painted from a Black Parisian model named Laure who appeared in several of Manet’s works. In the painting, Laure is nearly invisible, the color of her skin blending into a dark backdrop, a kind of visual pun that throws the white female nude into stark relief. This disappearance is a trope of nineteenth century painting, and it is a persistent trouble indeed, reflowering insidiously in film and digital photography, which is engineered to calibrate light to white faces.

Pierre’s work both calls attention to and resists this trope, influenced in part by the paintings of Bob Thompson which used bright, multicolored figures in compositions inspired by canonical European paintings. Pierre’s figures are sometimes bright, sometimes darkly luminous, complemented and accentuated by their landscapes. In Hereafter, Ye Shall Be Changed (2021), a backdrop of black smoke and flame doesn’t shroud the gray-black figures in the foreground but parts for them, creating a separate field of light that frames them brilliantly. And they themselves color the landscape, emitting a technicolor glow.

Across paintings, the protagonist herself changes color, from brown-skinned to jewel-toned—magenta, emerald, the crimson of a wound. Pierre describes her relationship to color as intuitive. “It starts with a feeling,” she says, explaining how the multitude of shades portrays each character’s expansive inner world. Nonetheless, she reiterates the importance of privacy. “I allow [my characters] to give me as much as they want to give me and hold back what they want to hold back.” In an era of hyper-scrutiny, in which “Black women are consumed, endlessly consumed,” that withholding is essential: the averted eyes, the moments of translucence, the palpable but ultimately unknowable field of feeling.

Pierre imagines a world she does not inhabit, in which figures who have “expanded past being human” appear in her likeness to make themselves briefly legible, a means to represent and reimagine her experience. But like all things sublime, their landscape extends beyond the frame. Pierre has opened a portal, through which we glimpse briefly their moments of tension and ecstatic release, their rage and quiet beauty. A borderland, which they’re only passing through.

Naudline Pierre: What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared , DALLAS MUSEUM OF ART AND JAMES COHAN GALLERY, 2022, 45 PP.

Naudline Pierre: This Is Not All There Is, The Drawing Center, on view June 2 through September 3, 2023

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