Naudline Pierre’s first exhibition in the two Walker Street spaces of the James Cohan Gallery bears an apt title: Enter the Kingdom. Encountering his vibrant and intensely colored oil paintings, sculptures and works on paper is like stepping into a spiritually charged alternate world, full of mind-blowing activity, with its own unique cosmology and iconography.
A central female figure – the artist and the gallery call her “the protagonist” – is accompanied by a recurring cast of extraordinary characters: winged and feathered seraphs and cherubim with intricate and profoundly human expressions; snakes with human faces. I’m hesitant to assign a gender to these characters because they’re supernatural, but they’re definitely female. Multi-colored flames, pulsating stars and bursts of energy abound. The characters are often in the air.
The exhibition is full of the transformations of the protagonist, it is protean, in the making, going through transitions. In “I, A Terror Loosed Upon Your Heels” (2022), she stands naked in a yellow air tank with wheels of fire. Her hair is pink and white, reflecting the alien sky; his skin is a rich, vivid crimson – bright red, a color Peter often employs, seems crucial in his cosmology. The character’s left arm is raised horizontally while his right palm emanates explosive force. In fact, she seems to be a force in her own right.
Pulled by winged beings with human faces, she charges into the sky above an otherworldly mountainous landscape, an invincible woman on a mission. His direct expression is captivating – dark, thoughtful, confident, defiant. The winged beings also project watchful gazes. They are dedicated to this mission.
Peter’s extremely imaginative and often mystical work contains many religious references, not only to angels, but also to altars, prophecies, ascensions, etc. In “Chrysalis at the Altar of Change” (2022), the protagonist emerges into the foreground as a fresh new being with glowing yellow skin and smoking red eyes. The yolk reaches his cheeks, with the upper part of his face remaining light brown; it is intriguing to see how the skin tone of the protagonist changes in the works. Five of Peter’s very special seraphim look at her lovingly and thoughtfully, each with a nuanced and sensitive expression; another winged kisses him. (The interactions between the figures are generally thoughtful and tender.) Behind is a flaming door, one of many in his paintings and sculptures. They hold an important place in his cosmology, as thresholds and portals, as well as barriers.
There is a lot of visual pleasure in Pierre’s work. His brushstroke, sometimes slender and daring or in shimmering washes, sometimes delicate and ultra precise, close to drawing, is captivating. Small details seem as important as colors and color combinations, characters and events: lips, eyes, eyelashes, feathers and hair. Jagged halos rise from the head of each seraphim. Curving around the group of figures, a beneficent brown and gold snake with a human face pours flames from its mouth on the protagonist, as if granting him protective power. There is a Renaissance air in his characters. She often invests ancient, even ancient symbols, such as a snake and fire, with new and unexpected meaning.
Although fantastical, Pierre’s paintings address fundamental concerns: love, loss, rescue, conflict, friendship, empowerment, resilience, the desire for transcendence, the mutable self and the importance of change, even unstable. His paintings are narrative episodes of the physical and spiritual progression of the protagonist through a wildly inventive world.
Sometimes this progression carries a danger. In a tableau with a memorable title, similar to that of the Old Testament, the protagonist is threatened by a winged serpent with an alarming face (“For I Will Strike and I Will Soothe”, 2022). Other times it involves breakthroughs and exultation, newfound strength or vulnerability. Often this involves tenderness and desire. In “I Dreamed of Love” (2021-22), the protagonist, here painted red, with a pink hand, curls up on her side and cradles the head of a bodiless cherub. Surrounded by feathers and touched by black flames, she seems delighted, in a state between wakefulness and sleep.
While many paintings include multiple figures, only two are in “Close to You” (2021-22). Entangled in flames, the Protagonist and a Seraph meet forehead to forehead, gazing into each other’s eyes. It could be a conflict, or the moment before a kiss. It is an ambiguous and marvelous painting.
I first assumed that the protagonist was Pierre’s alter ego or avatar. In a 2021 talk at the Dallas Museum of Art, the artist goes beyond that, stating that the protagonist “is in an alternate universe, somewhere else, and I can only meet her on the canvas… She has her own experience. , his agency, and is an external being myself.” This way of accessing an invisible spiritual world through painting is fascinating.
In “Held and Beheld” (2022), the naked protagonist, with his eyes open, leans against the legs of a winged figure, who appears to be crying strange blue tears. Next to them is another winged figure, covered in resplendent red and pink feathers, who holds a curved silver object that looks like a piece of fire and may well have magical power. Various reds and pinks give this painting a fierce, bubbling glow.
The annotated checklist points to Michelangelo’s “Pietà” and Manet’s “Olympia” as possible references, but there is no shortage of reclining, nude women in the Western art canon. What could easily be a peaceful scene is equally charged and tense; the protagonist is not a woman to watch, but a force to be reckoned with. In the background, the imposing black portal is on fire, the flames touching but not damaging the three figures. Fire, for Peter, signals change and catharsis. The protagonist remains measured, calm, strong and inscrutable. This beneficial hell forges him a new mysterious identity.
Pierre is clearly versed in Renaissance painting and church architecture, and familiar with Christian iconography and doctrine. Born in the United States, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, her father is a pastor and she grew up in the church. To me, that makes his invented world all the more fascinating. She invokes the religious and historical tropes of art but invests them with her concerns, absorbs them and recasts them into strongly idiosyncratic works that are truly unlike anything I have seen.
Two small sculptures in oil and oil pastel on panel, both on specially carved pedestals, evoke sacred architecture and serve as devotional objects; although they are related, they differ markedly. “Prophecy of Desire” (2022) is reminiscent of a church apse. Look inside to see the naked protagonist nestled on a winged serpent. The scene is frankly sensual; in many Christian neighborhoods that would be controversial. “Prophesy of Resilience and Persistence” (2022) recalls an altarpiece panel. The fiery red and black scene features the naked protagonist holding a magic sword, which also resembles a flame, with a spectacular snake behind her. Elsewhere, larger painted sculptures evoke Renaissance paintings and church architecture.
The brilliantly colored oil, enamel and oil stick on panel “Written in the Sky” (2022), upright and painted on both sides, is a wonderful variation on altar triptychs. With arms and legs outstretched, and a yellow and red star bursting behind her, the protagonist stands on the heads of two figures: a soaring, exultant figure stepping into her palpable power.
A dramatic highlight of the exhibit is a black wrought-iron door in the middle of a room, its door ajar (“May You Enter Without Fear, May You Leave Without Regret,” 2022). The portal features some of the recurring shapes in Pierre’s repertoire: flames, stars, sunbeams, wings. Heavy and metallic, it also seems airy and celestial. Here is the entrance to the nascent world of Pierre.
Numerous 15-inch by 11-inch works on paper, composed of acrylic ink, acrylic paint, gouache and chalk pastel in various configurations, line the walls of this room, offering a glimpse into this world. In one, a bodiless cherub exhales multicolored flames; in another three winged cherubs, each of a different color, glide diagonally. In a third, which really gets to the heart of the matter, the lonely, naked protagonist, now mostly red, rises at an angle, about to exit the stage, while turning her face towards the viewers. Wrapped in a sizzling abstract form, orange and black, she is a soaring figure on transformative flight. These works are more like visions than compositions.
Pierre’s work is totally original and fascinating; its exhibition is captivating and transportive. To paraphrase Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”, she is clearly in tune with his vision.
Naudline Pierre: Enter the Kingdom continues at the James Cohan Gallery (48 and 52 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) until June 18. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.