2019–20 Artist in Residence Naudline Pierre discusses being in conversation with yourself, the burden of biography, and the creative process.
In Naudline Pierre’s cavernous paintings, jewel-toned bodies writhe against the edge of the world. Figures float, fight and fly, sublimated within the timeless imagery of a landscape with no land and no horizon, gently warmed by their own stark vibrance. In a crowded room, Pierre’s paintings run interference, absorbing errant gazes and distending space with the keen plasticity of non-mimetic color, each a gaping display of what never was, what still remains.
Naudline Pierre’s primary practice is that of courting a fleeting self, coaxing her tethered to the surface with skilled precision. Pierre’s paintings are glimmering terraria, enveloping Heaven and Hell in the senses, archly mapping the infinitesimal with insight and devotion. In Pierre’s deft grasp, paint slickens, collapsing and expanding beneath the weight of embodied touch. While both historical attunement and biography inform Pierre’s use of color, gesture, and composition, the latter remains a representational burden that rests gently apart from her primary animus: flaying open the iconographies of “Capital-P-Painting.” Each work is a redress, a careful, cumulative revelation of the manifold antagonisms within what once was a singularly-heralded canon. Pierre’s paintings index the incalculable act of presence and illuminate the apocryphal legacy of western figuration.
An attempt to describe the person behind such transcendent work leads to a laundry list of apt, yet flattening descriptors. Agentive. Poised. Striking. Discerning. Skilled. Pierre’s exacting approach to artistic practice is best described in her own words, captured below in a conversation in which the artist flits between unstable histories, reclaimed time, and silence as self-care. Pierre unwraps the burdens of biography and creative process. She has the range.
Makayla Bailey: Looking at some of your paintings, like Fallen, for example, I was thinking about the function of nudity, and the body, and recalled John Berger’s framework of the “naked” and the “nude.”
Naudline Pierre: Right. “Naked” is like, this person is naked, and you’re observing them. “Nude” is like, this person is aware of their lack of covering.
MB: The nudity that is here, I call it nudity because it seems like it’s--
NP: I do too. I don’t consider this to be nakedness. In my mind, as I’m painting her, she knows!
For me, nudity in the work has a lot of reasons or purposes. There’s a certain visual evenness and neutrality in nudity. It removes this environment, this portal, this world, from our own reality, which is very much covered.
MB: Clothing is a powerful signifier.
NP: There are no symbols of wealth in nudity. It allows me to just focus on the ideas that I want to explore. So, the attention that I don’t end up putting into clothing, or covering, I put into scales, feathers, and textures, and hairstyles. That, to me, is much more exciting than trying to find a way to cover the body.
MB: If you’re not navigating sensuality in these paintings, what are you investigating your recent works?
NP: If I'm being honest, the application of paint is sensual. Inherently, there's going to be some kind of sensuality. I'm not going to remove sensuality completely from the image.
MB: One of the words that comes to mind in reference to your painting, is sanguine. Warmth is a core facet of your painting.
NP: I like the term sanguine because it rolls off the tongue, and it feels like curves: the word itself has a sense of roundedness. The warm side of the color spectrum is always somewhere where I feel really taken care of. Reds, pinks, magentas, oranges. A red can be a cool red vs. a warm red. But that whole color space is where I've found an entrance to this world. Through alizarin crimson and quinacridone magenta. Those colors just opened me up.
MB: You have a wide painterly range, and these works feel restrained as if you're operating well within the breadth of your capacity of technique. Is skilling a requisite to the "freedom" that you've alluded to in your practice of image making?
NP: My first love was drawing. I chose my grad school program because I wanted to learn figurativism in the classical sense. Shortly after I started, I realized that that world was heavily male-dominated and very white.
There was a moment where I was so focused on skill that I felt like it was stripping me away from the story that I wanted to tell. I was scared of truly mining religious iconography. I didn't really want to talk about my personal upbringing, because I didn't want to be stuck there, in terms of conversations about the work. Because I know people can take one thing and run with it and box you into being a "religious painter."
Unlearning, and then coming back and picking and choosing where and when I'm going to apply those skills has been really important for me, being able to paint clumsily right next to painting something that is pretty convincing, anatomically. This is another place, this is another universe, this is another reality that I can play around in. And bend the rules of time, bend the rules of light, in a way.
MB: You've also obliterated the horizon.
NP: Where is she? What is foreground, middleground, background? It doesn't exist.
MB: How much biography and how many racial signifiers do viewers project onto your work? Because the colors that you're using are non-mimetic, right?
NP: I think a lot of people find a way to project what they want the work to represent, especially given the fact that I have a Haitian background, people are really excited to go the spiritual route.
I don't want to be one of those artists who is like, "Don't think about who I am, just look at the work!" I said once that my dad is a Haitian pastor with a church in Miami, and that I did grow up in church, experiencing supernatural things. Yes, biography matters. And I am a Black person, a Haitian person, and that does influence the work. But that's not the only door through which to access the work. I want to be seen as a painter.
MB: We are decades removed from a time when some might have said that figuration and uplift were a mandate for Black artists. What is it like to be making figurative work in one of the many afterlives of the Black Arts Movement?
NP: I have always been a figurative painter. Even if it wasn't trendy, I would still be making figurative paintings. My aesthetic has been my aesthetic since the beginning of time, I just didn't have the tools, I didn't have the confidence.
NP: I think about this a lot, re: how did I get here? I didn't have any examples. I didn't know how to be this person. Both personally, and professionally. I made this shit up! Still am! I had no other option than to just be true to myself and to follow my intuition and just go where I feel good. I know for a fact that painting is what I was meant to do. I'm painting not only for me but I'm painting for my grandma and her mom and her mom and her mom, I'm painting for all of them, too.
When I was reading In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe, I was constantly thinking about non-linear time. The past isn't really the past, because the wake still goes on and we're still feeling it in the present. It makes me think about bending time, and not approaching narrative and story in a linear fashion. These things are all happening and we can dip back into them whenever. Because I do think that historically, a lot of time was stolen from us.
I have painted paintings and felt held, and broke down. As I'm growing this other—I'm calling her a twin in another universe right now, I've called her an alter ego in the past. Whoever she is, she's not me. She's someone who looks like me and has some of my characteristics but has an entirely different existence.
MB: Are you tethered at all?
NP: I think so. There are times where I'm painting her and I'm overwhelmed by being loved by her. And it sounds woo-woo, but like, sometimes you have to build the house that you want to live in! If you don't have that, if you are yearning for something, if you want something, sometimes you have to create it for yourself.
And she's changed so much! Right now, she's doing some of the caressing. In Lest You Fall, she's falling down. She's changing, and so am I. And sometimes she's a few steps ahead. And sometimes I'm painting her into the person that I want to be at some point. And sometimes she reaches back and she pulls me forward as well. She's really important to me. I love her so much, and I do feel loved by her.
I am existing in the paint, in my mind, and in a way, in the actual image. But then the sole evidence is the brushstrokes I leave behind. My brain will spin out, as I'm painting. I might think about what it feels like to be loved, I might think about a memory that's sad, about being stolen from your country and forced into slavery. I can think about all of these things in these brushstrokes. Those thoughts remain as remnants in the painting. It's a bit like a prayer. Or like, leaving messages behind for myself and for whoever can tap in, too.
Makayla Bailey is a joint curatorial fellow between the Studio Museum in Harlem (Exhibitions) and MoMA. Bailey was a contributing writer for the Studio Museum exhibition Dozie Kanu: Function and co-organized the winter 2020 season of Harlem Postcards at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Bailey is currently a primary researcher for the 2019–20 Artist-in-Residence culminating exhibition.