If you were to create your own afterlife, what would it look like? Would it be seraphic with blue skies and tiny cherubs? Full of departed loved ones? A soft space to reward us for a life well lived? When 34-year-old Brooklyn-based painter Naudline Pierre sets her oils to canvas, she imagines the contours of a Hereafter. This year, in a solo booth of Pierre’s new paintings on view at the Frieze New York art fair, the artist explores her own fiery mythological world. She strays from the familiar binary notions of Heaven and hell; it’s just a jewel-toned space to escape. You don’t have to have been good to get there.
Pierre manipulates Renaissance traditions such as forced perspective and flattened space to bring to life her cast of characters — her humanoid protagonist and her many-eyed, all-female guides and guards — while inverting those older traditions and doing away with Eurocentric imagery. Rendered in deep pinks and painted with oil and oil sticks, In the Meantime evokes the overwhelming sensation of looking up at the ceiling of a Baroque church; in Teach Me How, the protagonist is largely hidden while winged creatures teach her to harness fire. Steel altarpieces create a space for supplication and sacrifice in the hopes of receiving something better.
Creating the art is itself an act of supplication for Pierre, who begs her characters to come to her and trusts her intuition to paint them in the colors they want to appear. World-building is a similarly intuitive process, and there is much she doesn’t understand about it. “There’s a lot of mysteries for me in terms of this world,” she says. “Is it aquatic? Is it hot and humid? Is it kind? Is it malicious?” The room for multiplicity is what matters. “I choose to be this today, that tomorrow, and I can change my mind anytime,” Pierre says. She envisions her characters experiencing similar freedoms. “It’s a world that’s not always joyful,” says Pierre. “There’s strife but also reward, love and tenderness but also evil.”
Pierre began painting as a student at Andrews University. A “math and science” kid who always kept a “little notebook of drawings,” she decided to pivot after taking art classes. In art history, she found herself drawn to the traditions of the Northern Renaissance and Spanish Renaissance and to “dead and gone” influences such as El Greco, William Blake, Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, and Rogier van der Weyden: painters and periods that pushed toward something larger than the human experience. The daughter of a Haitian minister, she grew up around religious language but doesn’t consider herself a religious painter — rather, just one in tune with the ephemerality of everyday life. “This existence here on earth, it’ll be over in the blink of an eye. It’s not what matters completely,” she says. “It’s about doing what you need to do on this earth to get to another place that’s new, where you’ll be transformed, where you’ll be the self you were meant to be. Growing up with apocalyptic — I don’t want to say clouds because it wasn’t all negative and fire and brimstone, but it was very much like, Yeah, this isn’t my final home.”
To overemphasize her religious upbringing, she says, is to lose the freedom that’s central to her art. “Being allowed to be opaque is important, especially as someone trying to explore something that is not available all the time,” she tells me. Through her protagonist, she gives herself that opacity. The character first came to Pierre in grad school, when she was disinterested in straightforward portraiture and wanted to create something that “felt authentic” without hewing too close to reality. The artist has tried on “different ways of explaining her,” often landing on words like avatar and alter ego, but nothing feels totally sufficient. “I wanted an escape,” she says after some consideration. “She appeared in that moment.”
In this series, the protagonist explores her power and harnesses it with the help of the guardians around her — hazy figures that firmed up to Pierre over the years and teach the protagonist how to “be her own source of light, of fire, of transformation.” In An Invocation, which feels like a conclusion to the arc of the Frieze booth, the protagonist offers herself fully at a conceptual altar. What’s next for her? “Maybe she gets wings,” Pierre suggests. “Or maybe she turns into something completely different.” Either way, the unknown is exciting. “I can make this into anything that I wish as long as I give myself into the process fully,” she says. “It’s about possibility to me.”