Naudline Pierre’s debut exhibition at James Cohan gallery’s two Walker Street spaces has a spot-on title: Enter the Realm. Encountering her dynamic, intensely colorful oil paintings, sculptures, and works on paper is like entering a spiritually charged, alternate world full of mind-bending activity, one with its own unique cosmology and iconography.
A central female figure — the artist and gallery call her “the protagonist” — is accompanied by a recurring cast of extraordinary characters: winged and feathered seraphs and cherubs with complex, deeply human expressions; serpents with human faces. I hesitate to assign these characters a gender, since they are supernatural, but they are definitely femme. Multicolored flames, pulsating stars, and energy bursts abound. The figures are often aloft.
The exhibition is rife with the protagonist’s transformations — she is protean, in a state of becoming, moving through transitions. In “I, A Terror Loosed Upon Your Heels” (2022), she stands, nude, in a yellow aerial chariot with fiery wheels. Her hair is pink and white, mirroring the alien sky; her skin is a rich, vivid crimson — bold red, a color Pierre often employs, seems crucial in her cosmology. The figure’s left arm is raised horizontally while her right palm emanates an explosive force. In fact, she seems like a full-on force altogether.
Pulled by winged beings with human faces, she charges through the sky above a mountainous, otherworldly landscape, an invincible woman on a mission. Her direct expression is riveting — somber, thoughtful, confident, defiant. The winged beings also project intent gazes. They are devoted to this mission.
Pierre’s enormously imaginative, often mystical work contains numerous religious references, not only angels, but also altars, prophesies, and ascensions, and others. In “Chrysalis at the Altar of Change” (2022), the protagonist emerges front and center as a fresh, new being with glowing yellow skin and smoldering red eyes. The yellow reaches up to her cheeks, with the top part of her face remaining light brown; it is intriguing how the protagonist’s skin tone changes in the works. Five of Pierre’s very special seraphs gaze at her lovingly and thoughtfully, each with a nuanced, sensitive expression; another winged one embraces her. (Interactions between the characters is usually thoughtful and tender.) Behind is a flaming gate, one of many in her paintings and sculptures. They hold an important place in her cosmology, as thresholds and portals, as well as barriers.
There is a great deal of visual pleasure in Pierre’s work. Her brushwork, sometimes surging and bold or in shimmering washes, sometimes delicate and ultra-precise, similar 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 each seraph’s head. Curving around the cluster of figures, a beneficent brown and gold serpent with a human face pours flames from its mouth on the protagonist, as if bestowing protective power. There is a Renaissance look to her figures. She often invests old, even ancient symbols, such as a serpent and fire, with fresh and unexpected significance.
Though fantastical, Pierre’s paintings address core concerns: love, loss, succor, conflict, friendship, empowerment, resilience, the desire for transcendence, the mutable self, and the importance of change, however unsteadying. Her paintings are narrative episodes in the protagonist’s physical and spiritual progression through a wildly inventive world.
Sometimes this progression involves danger. In one painting with a memorable, Old Testament-like title, the protagonist is menaced 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 it involves tenderness and yearning. 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. Encircled by feathers and touched by black flames, she seems entranced, in a state between wakefulness and sleep.
While many paintings include multiple figures, only two are in “Close to You” (2021-22). Enmeshed in flames, the protagonist and a seraph meet forehead to forehead, gazing into each other’s eyes. This could be a conflict, or the instant before a kiss. It is an ambiguous, and wonderful, painting.
I initially surmised that the protagonist is Pierre’s alter ego or avatar. In a 2021 talk at the Dallas Museum of Art, the artist goes beyond this, declaring that the protagonist “is in an alternate universe, somewhere else, and I can only meet her at the canvas .… She has her own experience, her own agency, and is a being outside myself.” That way of accessing an invisible spiritual world through painting is fascinating.
In “Held and Beheld” (2022), the nude protagonist, eyes open, reclines against the legs of one winged figure, who appears to be weeping strange blue tears. Beside them is another winged figure, covered in resplendent red and pink feathers, who holds a curving silver object that resembles a piece of fire and just might have magical power. Various reds and pinks give this painting a fierce, seething glow.
The annotated checklist points to Michelangelo’s “Pietà” and Manet’s “Olympia” as possible references, but there is no shortage of supine, nude women in the Western art canon. What could easily be a peaceable scene is also fraught and tense; the protagonist is not a woman to be gazed at, but a force to be reckoned with. In the background, the imposing black gate is on fire, the flames touching but not harming the three figures. Fire, for Pierre, signals change and catharsis. The protagonist remains measured, calm, strong, and inscrutable. This beneficial inferno is forging a mysterious new identity for her.
Pierre is clearly well-versed in Renaissance painting and church architecture, and familiar with Christian iconography and doctrine. The US-born daughter of Haitian immigrants, her father is a pastor and she grew up in the church. For me, this makes her invented world all the more compelling. She invokes religious and art historical tropes but invests them with her concerns, absorbs and recasts them in sharply idiosyncratic works that really don’t resemble anything I have seen.
Two small oil and oil pastel on panel sculptures, both on specially carved pedestals, invoke sacred architecture and serve as objects of devotion; while linked, they markedly differ. “Prophecy of Desire” (2022) recalls a church apse. Look inside to see the nude protagonist nestling on a winged serpent. The scene is frankly sensual; in many Christian quarters it would be controversial. “Prophesy of Resilience and Persistence” (2022) recalls an altarpiece panel. The fiery red and black scene features the nude protagonist holding a magical sword, which also resembles a flame, with a spectacular serpent behind her. Elsewhere are larger painted sculptures that 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 marvelous variation on altar triptychs. With arms and legs outspread, and a yellow and red starburst erupting behind her, the protagonist stands on the heads of two figures: a rising, exultant figure entering into her palpable power.
A dramatic highlight of the exhibition is a black wrought-iron gate in the middle of one room, its beckoning door ajar (“May You Enter Without Fear, May You Leave Without Regret,” 2022). The gate sports some of the recurring forms in Pierre’s repertoire: flames, stars, sunbursts, wings. Weighty and metal, it also seems airy and celestial. Here is the entrance to Pierre’s burgeoning world.
Numerous 15 by 11-inch works on paper, composed of acrylic ink, acrylic paint, gouache, and chalk pastel in different configurations, line the walls in this room, providing glimpses into that world. In one, a bodiless cherub exhales multicolored flames; in another three winged cherubs, each a different color, glide in a diagonal row. In a third, which really gets to the heart of the matter, the solitary, nude protagonist, now mostly red, soars at an angle, about to blast out of the scene, while turning her face to viewers. Enveloped by a sizzling, orange and black abstract shape, she is a rocketing figure on a transformative flight. These works seem more like visions than compositions.
Pierre’s work is totally original and thrilling; her exhibition is engrossing and transportive. To paraphrase Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself,” she is clearly afoot with her vision.
Naudline Pierre: Enter the Realm continues at James Cohan gallery (48 and 52 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through June 18. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.