The Spiritual Universe of Naudline Pierre
Debuting a new body of work at The Drawing Center in Manhattan, the artist speaks on her love of New York, self-discovery through drawing and the seductive energy of possibility.
Naudline Pierre isn’t just creating artwork: she’s inventing whole new worlds. The 34-year-old New Yorker describes her heady, large-scale pieces as “portals” to a parallel universe—a place of painterly nirvanas and intoxicating hellscapes, where fire burns in jewel-toned flames, aquatic scenes glimmer with magic and shadowy underworlds invite us into the unknown. Headed up by one central figure, Pierre’s alter ego, this world is populated by winged creatures who tangle themselves in narratives of love, loss, chaos and salvation. Growing up the daughter of a Haitian minister, Pierre’s work takes inspiration from spiritual iconography and devotional Renaissance masterpieces she pored over at university. Her own artistic realm, however, is not tethered to any religion or moral code, but rather represents a place of escape and endless possibility. “It's all about transcending the everyday,” the artist tells GOAT.
You’re doing so many exciting things in 2023. What’s this year been like for you so far?
Busy, but in the best way. I get to do what I love and people get to see it. I’m really excited about that. It’s just nice seeing things come to fruition, especially The Drawing Center show. We've been working on it for a really long time.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and where you grew up?
I’ve moved around a bit, so I don't ever really focus on where I'm from. I've been in New York for the last 10 years, and it's the place that I’ve chosen. I've had so many experiences here and it's the place that’s really impacted my career. I love New York City.
How do you feel New York has shaped you as an artist?
I think I'm always drawn to the feeling or the presence of possibility, and New York City is that. Of course, every city goes through its changes, but I think at the time that I moved here in 2013, it was very much like, “Okay, anything is possible.” It just feels nice to be here after 10 years, having a show at The Drawing Center and having a really great team at the gallery to work with.
What was your early relationship to art and the act of making?
As a kid, I had a little folder of drawings that I would keep at the ready, but I wasn't a particularly arty kid; I was more of a math and science kid. I had an underground desire to be creative, so it came out in a lot of different ways. I would draw a lot and I had a crazy imagination. I would play by myself and make up all these worlds. It wasn't until I went to undergrad that I took a drawing class and things started to sort of come together in terms of my passion for making things.
So you’ve always escaped to imagined worlds? That’s obviously a theme in your work now.
It's all about transcending the everyday. For me, it's like an escape hatch. I think we all need a little bit of an escape.
At the core of the work in general, I think, is this idea of transformation. It goes right back to the possibility of being so seductive—the idea that you can be anything is really exciting.
Your work draws from spiritual iconography, Renaissance paintings and ideas of heaven and hell. How did you become interested in these subjects?
I see myself as a sponge. I make images out of the things that I've absorbed. Growing up, a lot of that was religious imagery, and then during my undergrad I was exposed to all aspects of art history, but I kept coming back to those sorts of images. I’m in awe of how artists in the Renaissance period had to use their imagination to create space, depth and perspective. Also the characters that inhabited some of the stories and the way those stories and traditions had to be relayed with imagery—not everyone could read in those times. I'm more interested in that process, taking that language and using it for my own exploration of life’s themes: love, loss and benevolence.
How does your show at The Drawing Center differ from your previous bodies of work?
What differentiates this show from anything else I've done is that it’s dedicated to work on paper. It really came from wanting to be part of the tradition at The Drawing Center. A lot of the work is about creating snapshots of these characters in their world as they choose to be seen or not to be seen. So there's a lot of connection to a fog or a mist, where these characters are sort of receding from view or coming into view. A lot of the work is about being in a liminal space, a space of transition. Like you think about water, you think about fire, when they come together, it becomes steam. It's a transitional element, and the works are kind of transitional—not everything is defined. That's where I find the most comfort: in not being defined, not being boxed in. These characters are experiencing freedom, and we're getting to see them do that.
Can you tell me about the characters in your artworks? I know you have a central figure you work from usually.
With my work in general, there's a central figure and she appears in a lot of different ways. She’s pivotal to this world. However, I've been really exploring and expanding the characters surrounding her. In The Drawing Center show, most of the work gives these other characters a space to be. These characters experience life and emotion, and it's not about being good or bad. It's about being everything. What I'm constantly going for is this concept of multiplicity.
There are moments in the works where the characters are a little bit more tender with each other, and there are some scenes that feel a little bit more tense and a little bit more undone. Flames are very present in all of the work. There's this implied hope that the fire will transform them, will make them into something new. At the core of the work in general, I think, is this idea of transformation. It goes right back to the possibility of being so seductive—the idea that you can be anything is really exciting.
You’ve previously said the world you imagine in your art “is not always joyful.” Can you elaborate?
I'm not super pressed to find out all the details of this world because mystery and elusiveness is really important to my process. Right now I see it sort of like a parallel universe. Sometimes I feel really connected to the characters and I feel that as they're growing, I'm growing as well. They teach me lessons and I teach them lessons. And then sometimes I don't feel connected to them, and I have to ask them, “What do you want from me?” I'm very happy to not know everything, because I think that, again, that elusiveness allows for states of possibility.
What is your artistic process like? You’ve described your relationship with drawing as a very tactile, exploratory experience.
It's a bit different when I’m painting. Usually it’s a larger-scale situation and I use oil paint, so you can scrape it off, you can cover things, you can start again. There's opacity there. But with these works on paper, I used acrylic ink and oil pastels mainly, so a lot of transparency was happening. You can't, at least with my process, completely cover things up. So you could see how the image was built up over time.
With the work for this show, I limited my palette a lot. It’s very much earth tones, some aquatic tones, but for the most part browns and blacks and some pinks. I wanted to give myself the limitation and see if I could still arrive at an image that was impactful. With the sculptural work, that definitely felt like drawing because, essentially, I made a drawing that was translated by a fabricator; almost like a drawing made three-dimensional, which I thought was really exciting for a show that was meant to be two-dimensional.
One thing I love about my practice is that it's never really the same. Things can shift. In my work, I'm looking for the ability to change my mind, to do things differently. In real life, I want those same things as well, so it makes sense to me that my process has moments of like, “Yeah, ok, let me switch it up.”
I'm learning how to trust myself and trust these characters who essentially are imaginary friends. I'm learning a lot about how to absorb pain and make something beautiful out of it.
Do you discover new things about yourself through your work?
I’ve learned how much patience I have as a lot of the process is intuitive. I really have to wait and feel and stare until these characters appear to me. I'm learning how to trust myself and trust these characters who essentially are imaginary friends. I'm learning a lot about how to absorb pain and make something beautiful out of it.
Much like your work, your personal sense of style is really vibrant and plays with lots of ideas. Is fashion another way you express yourself or find creativity?
Absolutely. I see it as armor. I also see it as a way to activate the imagination and to create personas. I find fashion almost like another way of drawing: by taking my body into the world and creating an essence around me. Even as a kid, my little folder of drawings was always fashion stuff and creatures. When I look at the work I’m making now, it makes sense that I’m drawing characters in the way I am.
What do you hope visitors will take away from The Drawing Center exhibition?
I hope that people can enter the space and leave with a sense of wonder. At the end of the day, I want the work to be a portal into something unseen, and so I hope people can step in and allow themselves to float down the river into this world and, just for a moment, forget about the everyday.