NEW YORK CITYJames Cohan Gallery
Naudline Pierre: Enter the Realm
May 14 – June 18, 2022
The James Cohan Gallery has organized Naudline Pierre’s first solo exhibition in New York at its two spaces on Walker Street, featuring a selection of oil paintings on linen, painted triptych panels and three-dimensional structures adorned and supported with wrought-iron details, a room-sized iron gate, and small- to large-scale mixed-media works on paper. This exhibition affirms the presence of a promising artist whose nascent aesthetic language is becoming recognizable, with its vivid colors and mythological subjects featuring nude Black women and fantastical winged and feathered angels from religious iconography. Pierre’s spiritual upbringing with her father as a Haitian minister can be felt in the visionary and biblical subjects that weave in and out of her work.
In the first room of the ground floor of the gallery, a mural-scaled painting, I, A Terror Loosed Upon Your Heels (2022) alludes to mythology and early Christian iconography, with a woman riding a chariot—like the god Helios—across the sky, pulled by winged flying heads, versions of seraphim, the highest angels in the celestial order. In this work we can identify the main visual vocabulary of styles, motifs, figures, and colors that constitute Pierre’s language. In ancient Greek mythology, as the sun god Helios rode a golden chariot to and from the East (in Ethiopia) and the West (a far West corner of the Atlas mountains), the sun would rise and set. In revisiting these myths with Black female figures, Pierre replaces the homogenous image of Helios with a Black woman with the power to control the sun and fiery reins. The silhouettes of figures and sharp shapes of four-point stars, flames, and explosions cutout from the contrasting black background recall the red-figure painting of ancient Greek pottery as well as contemporary graphic arts. The expansiveness of a fuchsia sky contrasts with large areas of black in visible brush strokes. The composition is intuitive; the main figure is fiery red, while the hovering chariot is a fluorescent yellow-green set over a green and pink landscape. The artist may have a kinship with the artist Bob Thompson, who painted idyllic and mythological scenes of mono-color nudes, which were also experienced as color compositions.
The faces of Black women are observed on the seraphim and in Through the Valley (2021–22), among other works. The socio-demographics of ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean were more diverse than the surviving historical imagery depicting those narratives—which Pierre questions and reclaims as her own. Perhaps Pierre’s palette recalls the psychedelic world order described by Homer in The Odyssey with its infamous wine-dark sea. Naudline’s figures, characters, and motifs are recurrent throughout the exhibition. These paintings have large fields of lyrical transparent color and visible line drawings of the figure. In the second room, a mural-sized painting on canvas, Chrysalis at the Altar of Change (2022), has an imposing snake, symbolic of the Garden of Eden, and the female figures have Alphonse Mucha-like flowing dramatic tresses. The five creatures have human faces and bear full-bodied wings, looking at the main female nude. This spatial arrangement makes direct reference to early Christian and Renaissance-era paintings where compositions of angels flanking a principal sacred figure like the Virgin Mary were prevalent. This single female nude becomes the protagonist of the exhibition, an avatar, looking back at us stoically. An embrace by three seraphim suggests protection for this figure. We follow her into another realm as her saga unveils before us in this body of work.
She appears numerous times, also in Prophecy of Desire, Prophecy of Resilience and Persistence, and Written in the Sky, (all 2022) in this room. These three works are painted on panels, two as three-dimensional structures resembling altars: an arch, a pitch roof, and an oversized three-panel hinged triptych, respectively. They’re adorned by black outlines of flames in the compositions, alone on the sides, and more elaborate on the back of the panels as if the panels are skin and the designs are tattoos. Fire is symbolic of the metamorphosis of the phoenix for life and rebirth and is emphasized in almost all the works in the exhibition, including the design in the wrought-iron cutouts in the metal stands supporting the painted architectural objects, and the painting Held and Beheld (2022).
The gate in this painting has been brought to life as May You Enter Without Fear, May You Leave Without Regret (2022), displayed on the second floor at 52 Walker surrounded by a series of works on paper, including a study (Gate ). Pierre’s painted world of angels, and heroic women supporting one another, are stepping out of the painterly realm to exist closer to our space through these stage-like sets. In this gallery there are twenty-two intimate works on paper where we can see Pierre’s exploration through fantasy and sacred subjects of angels, snakes, feathered wings, rays of light drawn in chalk pastel and blocks of red, pink, purple, and green ink on a solid black background such as in the warmth of Red Embrace (2020) and Keep Me (2020). Her images are born from her imagination as we travel with her protagonist through a journey that ultimately seeks to uplift and empower the character.
In a separate gallery, we also find large-scale drawings of seraphim like Fire Storm (2022) and the vulnerable painting I Dreamed of Love (2021–22), with a pink-red woman in fetal position, and more of her three-dimensional objects resembling an open life-size armoire or altar, painted in Pierre’s identifiable motifs and style. Her colors beckon us to look closer, drawing us in and dreaming with large fields of pink and aqua blue in Give Me Freedom, Give Me Love Everlasting (2022). The central figure is wine-red and tattooed with flames in Though it May Hurt, Thus Shall You Grow, (2022), and the oversized magnificent blue seraphim is hovering over the group of women with a look of tenderness. On the side, the neon pink background against the solemn black winged figure reminds us of the black-figure painting style found in Greek pottery from the sixth–fourth Century BCE, here adapted to a more fluid composition and drawing. The figures’ life-size scale narrows the gap between our world and this realm, experiencing the journey on the same level. The shapes of these objects vary: a smaller egg-shaped, extraterrestrial looking painted object called Prophecy of Power and Endurance (2022), has the avatar femme figure pursuing her celestial journey set against a concave fluorescent yellow interior adorned with silver enamel flames and explosions. We experience them as architectonic models for sanctuary grottos.
The bright allure of Pierre’s colors creates lyrical landscapes that set the universes for her Black women to support each other in these mythological and biblical epic journeys. Expanding painting onto painted sculptural structures is an exciting direction for Pierre’s work and shows promise for evolution and innovation through her imagination. As we vicariously experience her protagonist’s ascension into new realms, we also feel tenderness through her painting.