by Jenn Dierdorf
Naudline Pierre’s large-scale figurative painting encapsulates nebulous worlds where Spirit is revered and connection, touch, and belonging reign. I was introduced to Pierre’s work in 2017 at an exhibition called Landing organized by the curatorial collective Life Lessons in NYC. The exhibition was held in a former convent in Manhattan and may have been the ideal way to view Pierre’s work. Seven different artists’ work was hung in and around the vacated bedrooms where nuns had previously lived for the past 100 years. Pierre’s work occupied one of these rooms. A large canvas filled with luminescent figures, perhaps aiding her female protagonist, in what appeared to be a tender moment of ritual. Pierre’s large-scale figurative works run parallel to religious icon painting and have strong references to European Renaissance painting, but they are wildly different, and quite exhilarating.
Pierre is the daughter of a pastor and had a rigorous religious upbringing. She recognized the exclusionary intent behind such institutions as art, religion and education and sought to reconcile this fracture between representation and real life. This experience has influenced her work, but even more so is her innate ability to guide herself, to move towards the direction where she will find her voice. She obtained a technically formal education with the determination to gain an undeniable level of skill in painting which she hoped would prove her worth as an artist. Luckily she broke through that glass ceiling in the last few years, moving towards a style of painting that feels ripe with wisdom and reaches far beyond language. In many ways Pierre has created an alternate universe, replete with the compassion and love she has taken from her real experience.
I met with Pierre at her Ridgewood Queens studio on a rainy Friday afternoon. The modest sized studio was sparse, her materials and work space were orderly and neat. A few paintings hung on the wall and some monumental unpainted “canvases in waiting” leaned against the wall. Beautiful light spilled in from an overhead skylight.
How did you arrive to where you are at with painting?
I always had a connection to figurative art, especially Renaissance painting,but I knew it wasn't created for me. I wanted to see myself in those paintings. I think that’s why I create this other world, another experience. In terms of my education, I thought that my value as an artist was going to be in the incredible skill of rendering the figure in a more photo-realistic way. I learned “the rules” of painting and then I got to a place where I needed to get outside of the rules. I was awarded a residency in France, on the property of Monet’s gardens. I was painting a lot of foliage at the time, but before I got there I resolved to paint solely from my imagination. It was a catalyst to creating the work I’m making now. After graduating with my MFA, I leaned into all the things I was hesitant of in grad school; my religious upbringing, my Blackness, my color sense. In order to more clearly hear my voice, I stepped away from all the feedback and critique and comments from others and locked myself in my studio.
I’m always fascinated by how artists use their studio practice as a tool for their own intellectual and psychic well-being - you reference a problematic genre of painting, European renaissance, which you’ve adapted in ways that address those issues, can you talk about why you chosen to reinterpret that style and what you’re adding to it?
When I make this imagery I’m making the things that I want to see in the world. I tell myself that I don’t have to carry the burdens of systems that I didn’t create. I don’t have to actively think about being Black or the political climate when I paint for it to filter in, because I absorb and experience all those things. Which is why I have to be selective about who I surround myself with and who I let in - I block out certain things to be able to create this work. With painting, I’m not trying to replace anything - but I’m simply creating a world where I hold the power and get to do whatever I want. By proxy that is political, it is adding to the narrative, adding to the greater story of Black people in general. There are many burdens I have to carry every single day - the major aggressions, the microaggressions, the experiences that I have to take on, just to get to my studio. I don’t have to carry the world - all I have to do is make this painting. And I’m making this painting for myself.
How do you start a painting?
I keep a small notebook and draw up tiny thumbnail drawings of different compositions that I want to explore. If I’m feeling stuck I might look at some of my favorite artists like Caravaggio, Ensor, Titan and Blake. I went to the Prado this summer and since photos aren’t allowed inside I was scribbling like crazy in my notebook looking at compositions. One work, “The Descent from the Cross” by van der Weyden has some great moments, the body of Christ, the tears, the nubby fingers, all of it was giving me inspiration, but when I saw the figure holding Christ’s elbow from above, it was a beautiful tender moment. That became the composition for an entire painting. Sometimes I may take directly from these historical, religious paintings, but most times it’s inspired by them. Or it may be a feeling or sensation I’m reaching for, like how the sky meets the earth or a certain type of light. Every painting starts with her (gestures toward that female protagonist in her paintings) I’ve tried making them without her and it just doesn’t work.
I’ve heard you describe your work as “painting emotions”, which I agree describes your work beautifully. There’s a feeling of temporality and ephemerality that your work touches on as if your imagery goes beyond language. Can you talk about what your experience is like, as an artist, working beyond the boundaries of verbal or intellectual understanding?
The place beyond the boundaries of verbal and intellectual understanding is a very comfortable place for me because that’s where I was raised. A place where you believe in miracles and all of the stories and biblical tales of people being healed and raised from the dead and receiving signs. It’s a place where I can have control because I’m making the images, but I can be held by the images as well. I don’t have to understand them completely and I don’t have to know what’s going on or have an answer. I’m in love with paint and pigments. The act of painting is like a prayer to me. To move this material around on a blank canvas and produce images, it is like a miracle. It’s definitely a spiritual practice and it’s a way for me to connect to love, benevolence and God. Painting is how it all makes sense to me.
Your color palette is dark but also colorful and I think serves the emotional content of your work. Can you talk about how you’ve settled on these colors, how you chose them for a painting? Is color symbolic for you?
Color is definitely an intuitive process for me, and it’s difficult to put into words. I love the way artificially-made pigments vibrate against earth pigments. I paint with colors I gravitate to and colors that make me feel. I’m sure there is a symbolic reason woven into my color choices, like how red is a power color, but I’m fine just letting my gut take the lead, supplemented by more formal understanding of color relationships.
Pierre is currently working towards two major projects in 2019: a two-person presentation at The NYC Armory in March and a solo exhibition in September in L.A., both with Shulamit Nazarian. For more on Naudline Pierre’s work visit her website or @cluvie on social media.