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Issue 225

Naudline Pierre Recalls Fiery Visions of Angels

The painter's institutional debut at the Dallas Museum of Art relies on biblical references to soften the distinctions between the spheres of creation

BY Logan Lockner in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 16 DEC 21

In the sixth chapter of the biblical Book of Isaiah, the narrator recounts a vision of the seraphim – angels whose form is mysterious and untamed compared to the more familiar, porcelain-skinned figures depicted in the 15th-century Florentine frescoes of Fra Angelico, for instance. ‘Each had six wings,’ Isaiah attests. ‘With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.’ One of the seraphs carries a flaming coal from the heavenly altar to touch Isaiah’s lips, marking him as a prophet. Contrary to common assumptions about the respective climates of heaven and hell, when translated from Hebrew into English, seraph means ‘the burning one’.

On view at the Dallas Museum of Art, New York-based painter Naudline Pierre’s debut institutional solo exhibition, ‘What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared’, recalls this vision of angels as fiery messengers and supernatural guardians. Pierre began making ethereal, jewel-toned paintings of winged figures in subtly allegorical scenes as early as 2017. The two earliest paintings in the exhibition – Hold Me This Way and Closer Still (both 2017) – demonstrate the development of Pierre’s signature techniques and subject matter.

Naudline Pierre, 'What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared', 2021-22, exhibition view, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas. Courtesy: © Naudline Pierre and James Cohan, New York; photograph: Paul Takeuchi

These works feature a nude feminine figure that Pierre referred to in a recent interview with W magazine as the ‘protagonist’ – a recurrent yet elusive character who serves as a narrative through-line across her oeuvre. In Hold Me This Way, this protagonist is the only figure with a face, returning the viewer’s gaze as other shadowy beings hold her aloft in a pose suggestive of canonical depictions of Christ’s descent from the cross. A faceless figure with sapphire-coloured wings rests its blank head affectionately against her magenta hip.

Shown on their knees, heads bowed together, the embracing figures in Closer Still have their defining facial features concealed from view. Fashioned like a sinister girdle, a thin black serpent encircles the figures’ waists at the centre of the composition as flattened flames surround them, creating overlapping layers of depth. These forms – the bodies, the flames, the serpent – have all been reduced to their most spare depictions, a decision that somehow grants them even greater symbolic potency. This restrained style of representation and particular allegorical imagery evoke the works of the 20th-century Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón, whose combination of Christian and Afro-Cuban religious iconography provides useful visual and cultural context for Pierre’s fantastical world.

Naudline Pierre, Lest You Fall, 2019, oil on canvas. Courtesy: © Naudline Pierre and James Cohan, New York; photograph: Paul Takeuchi

Stylized flames appear in every subsequent painting on display, becoming an increasingly prominent element in Pierre’s visual language. The repeating curves formed by tongues of flame, waves of hair and feathered wings – rendered in varied texture and detail – create a dynamic sense of downward motion in Lest You Fall (2019), which shows the golden-hued protagonist saved by the shimmering wings of phoenix-like angels as she plunges backwards, headfirst.

In the most recent paintings on display, Pierre’s angelic figures are rendered in a darker palette, with the jewel tones of earlier works emerging as strange celestial light from beneath sweeping wings and behind distant stars. Hereafter, Ye Shall Be Changed (2021), one of the exhibition’s most striking paintings, shows the charcoal-skinned protagonist as she appears to master the otherworldly fire that surrounds her, a ghostly flame spreading from her hand. The creatures in To Make You Whole (2021) possess a terrific medieval weirdness: some angels are composed merely of an expressive face between two wings; another figure wears a cheetah-print bodysuit rippling with black flames. Pierre’s inventive revisions of a tradition-laden genre are more than art-historical exercises; like the works of the Romantic British painter William Blake, they present exquisite and idiosyncratic prompts to consider the world unseen.

Naudline Pierre's exhibition What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared’ is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas until 15 May 2022.

Main image: Naudline Pierre, Hold Me This Way, 2017, oil on canvas. Courtesy: © Naudline Pierre and James Cohan, New York; photograph: Paul Takeuchi

Logan Lockner is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA.