I’ve recently experienced a religious conversion—become born-again if you will. At least where art is concerned. For decades I avoided Medieval art like the plague due to (what I felt at the time was) its revolting connection to Christianity at its most conservative, a kneejerk response after reading too much Christopher Hitchens as a contrarian teenager. I repent! And now, I find myself lingering for hours in Medieval and Renaissance wings in museums. Give me a rendering of a tortured saint sitting dutifully in a pot on an ornate altarpiece and I’m aesthetically satisfied. What is it about this era of art history that I respond to, beyond its enticing combination of opulent beauty and bloody carnage? The overwrought emotionality, heightened to the level of Catholic camp, which I referenced months ago in regard to Louise Giovanelli’s exhibition Soothsay at GRIMM, is just part of it. If I dig deeper, there is just something about centuries of representation motivated by the desire to reach beyond the shit of this earthly realm to dream of a kingdom in the sky through a communal storytelling tradition that just gets to me.
Which is why Naudline Pierre’s swirling swarm of fantastical creatures in her solo exhibition This Is Not All There Is, currently on view at The Drawing Center, firmly captivated me. If Peggy Lee asked in her quintessentially blasé tone, “Is that all there is?”, Pierre answers with her show, which guides viewers into a smoldering abyss, somewhere between heaven, hell, and purgatory, populated by chimeric beings, from winged figures to women-serpents. Not only piquing the imagination, Pierre’s drawings twist the visual language of Medieval art by offering a peek at transcendence and more formally, taking on the structure of sacred architecture. Yet, rather than relying on preexisting narratives spun by a specific denomination, she uses these art historical references to bolster her own personal iconography. By doing so, Pierre presents spiritual possibility apart from the burden of organized religion, a revelatory act specifically for those who may not find themselves in the blindingly white representations of Medieval art history or who have been alienated by the human failings inherent in many forms of religion.
Organized by Chief Curator Claire Gilman, This Is Not All There Is transforms The Drawing Center’s back gallery into a space dedicated to devotional contemplation. This is made most obvious by the presence of three sculptural chairs placed around the room’s singular column. With pillars of fire arching high above their towering backs and cut out in negative space between the chairs’ legs, these dark pieces of patinated steel furniture are not exactly made for cozy slouching. Instead, the hard surface mimics the rigor and reserve of ecclesial architecture. It’s not as if church pews are exactly comfy. More than the horizontal communality of humble wooden pews, these chair-sculptures are closer to presider or celebrant chairs at their most unapproachably intimidating. Entitled The Time Is Near (Beginning), The Time Is Near (Middle), and The Time Is Near (End), these throne-like chairs exude ominous austerity as if they should be placed around a waiting room for exorcists. Above these chairs on the column is a small easily-missed drawing, Curious Being, which features the face of—what looks to be—a gorgeous lizard lady. Cut into the shape of an eight-pointed star, this drawing is given a place of worshipful prominence like a rendering of Christ or the Virgin Mary on a column above a votive stand, one piece of cathedral décor that was sorely lacking in the exhibition. On the nose, yes, but I would have lit a candle to Curious Being!
The quizzical stare of Curious Being is joined in the black-painted gallery by drawings of various shapes and sizes, including other mysterious front-facing countenances contained within a paper in the form of cross-like stars. Some conventionally rectangular drawings are hung in pairings high on the wall while others, like the monumental billowing clouded trio of In the Infinite, Omnipotent, and Omniscient are specifically placed together to mimic an altarpiece triptych. With their arched shapes, these three large drawings are not the only ones to harken back to Medieval panel painting. Pierre also includes two multi-part drawings, Creatures of Love and Intertwined. Both encircled with black fiery frames, these works position several smaller drawings together in order to recall intricate altarpieces. However, whereas Medieval altarpieces are typically vibrant with pops of jewel-toned reds, blues, and golds, Pierre’s altarpiece works are washed in smoky grey, reminiscent of David Lynch’s spooky watercolors in his 2022 exhibition I Like to See My Sheep at Sperone Westwater. The subjects in these drawings are no less surreal. For instance, Creatures of Love centralizes a yellow and orange cat-eyed figure with downy delicate white wings that seem to bloom from the side of her head, enveloped in shades of green and blue chalk pastel-tipped flames. To her sides, two others in thin vertical drawings hover cloaked in their own wings, one side-eying the viewer while the other turns inward. The other parts, likewise, reveal blazing-haired female beings swooping and plunging into a sea of fire.
As seen in Creatures of Love, most of Pierre’s drawings in This Is Not All There Is present a morass of phantasms taking flight, peering out with human-like faces, some of which resemble Carol Rama’s women at their most berserk. Many of these faces have glowing eyes (at least one a cyclops and several with multiple eyes) surrounded by giant fluttering eyelashes. At times, these winged figures are joined by serpents with the heads of women popping from slithering curls of green-scaled bodies. Admittedly, the samey-samey aspect of these scenes in almost all of the drawings can risk becoming a tad monotonous. But Pierre staves off this limitation by her range of color, from drippy bursts of deep brown like a spilled cup of coffee to vivid luminescent blues and greens as seen in Welcome the Unknown, which remind me of some of Cy Gavin’s paintings of nature. The drawings also remain hypnotic due to Pierre’s deft representation of whirlwinds of movement that easily pull a viewer’s attention to the velocity of these figures as they zip and dash across the picture plane.
There is also the occasional jolt of spotting the figure of a nude Black woman, who appears to be diving, somersaulting, or simply observing these otherworldly creatures around her. This is Pierre’s protagonist, a character recognizable from her more widely exhibited painting practice. The presence of the protagonist provides a tangible link between Pierre’s divergent bodies of work, proof that there is an ongoing narrative thread at work. While her paintings, which recall the color of Byzantine gemstones as much as they do Bob Thompson, feature a similar self-created spiritual iconography, I much prefer these drawings, which explode with an unfettered and unrestrained energy.
Perhaps this energy derives from the inherent immediacy and intimacy of drawing as a medium, but it could also be that almost all of these drawings exist in the midst of a raging inferno. Any viewer with pyro tendencies will surely feel satiated by this firestorm. Throughout the show, Pierre proves herself to be a master of fire, portraying the element in many forms. There is the surging plume of black licking flames like the silhouette of a murder of crow, highlighted by the shadow of grey wash, in Don’t Be Afraid. Conversely, some of the flares feature a lighter sketch-like touch, as seen in the outlined oil pastel of Mist or Whirlwind. Others are almost ornamental and patterned like the boldly graphic Inside. Naturally, as someone who gravitates towards fire and brimstone aesthetics, I found the most engrossing works to be the most apocalyptic. With a disarmingly accepting title, Come What May depicts winged creatures as they divebomb broiling red flames as searing as some of Bosch’s firestorms. The burning seems so blistering that blots of ink stains look as if the actual paper is beginning to singe through. However rather than erupting through the paper, more faces peer through these scorches. Similarly, another army of angels in Into the Abyss race across a sky washed with a sickly shade of end-times orange that I saw with my own eyes during those grim June days when the Canada wildfire smoke choked out New York City. You can almost smell that chemical wood-burning stench oozing off the paper.
With these sweltering ecstatic visions, it’s hard not to draw immediate associations to William Blake (whose work is also recalled by The Drawing Center’s concurrent exhibition A Greater Beauty: The Drawings of Kahlil Gibran), as well as Reverend Howard Finster at his most hellishly damning. Pierre’s self-created iconography is also heavily influenced by her own religious upbringing, raised with the ever-present inevitability of the end of days. As she told BOMB Magazine:
“I grew up in a Protestant Christian denomination that had an emphasis on the end of the world. As a child, I spent a lot of time thinking about the apocalypse and imagining what would come after it. A new world. The conversations surrounding life on this present earth made it seem like this existence––this reality––was just a layover. When I was six years old, I thought that by the time I was twelve the earth would be destroyed, and I—if I was righteous enough—would go on to live in a beautiful fantasy world that was beyond my imagination.”
Certainly, the Book of Revelation is an especially appropriate biblical reference here with its descriptions of angels with legs “like pillars of fire.” Yet the continual conflagration in Pierre’s drawings also reminds me of the prevalence of fire symbolism in Tibetan Buddhism. Now, I’ll admit I really know fuck-all about Tibetan Buddhism. However, Pierre’s drawings immediately made me flashback to an earlier trip around the Rubin Museum where I was captured by a 19th-century Bhutanese painting on black cloth of Palden Lhamo Dusolma, a smoke-clad goddess who sits among a vibrant cloud of multicolored roiling flames. Even more, the Rubin’s morbidly excellent exhibition, Death Is Not the End, which juxtaposes Tibetan Buddhist and Christian depictions of death and the afterlife, provides another fruitful comparison: Yama Dharmaraja. In an 18th-century Tibetan work, this wild-eyed, human skeleton-shaking, skull-crowned deity stands fighting in the middle of, as the label explains, “flames of wisdom.” The label continues, “The implication is that wisdom conquers death, and with the understanding of the true nature of reality, the cycle of suffering—birth, death, and rebirth—ends.”
A beautiful concept, no? I like to think Pierre’s flames represent flames of wisdom too but, of course, I have no idea what they—or really, any other part of her iconography—mean. Are these winged creatures angels in the Christian tradition? Are they bad-trip demons? Are they good, evil, or neutral? Are they protectors of the protagonist? Are they avenging? Are they falling from grace or ascending to an afterlife? Are the serpent women recalling temptation, infinity, or transformation? Who knows. And it’s this dedication to unanswerable obliqueness that accounts for why I’m so enamored with This Is Not All There Is. Pierre leaves room for not knowing. Thank God. Certainty is boring in general. And certainty in art? The fucking WORST. Yet, our culture surely does everything possible to shut down ambiguity. There’s an annoyingly pervasive reliance on overdetermining an audience’s experience of art, often relying on theory or jargon or, God forbid, identity politics in order to shield institutions from the discomfort of letting audiences sit with the unknown, come to their own conclusions, and use their imaginations to find their own meaning in the work.
Pierre, Gilman, and The Drawing Center, luckily, have the confidence in the work and the audience themselves to allow us to, as David Lynch would say, have room to dream. And This Is Not All There Is is all the better for it. As Anaïs Duplan asks in his poem, “LIKE MAKIN IT TO HEAVEN & THEN TURNIN BACK CUZ U FORGOT HOW,” included in the exhibition’s catalogue, “…what lies beyond me?” I don’t know but I’m grateful for what Pierre allows me to imagine.