Over the past two years, the people of our country have experienced social unrest, economic uncertainty and a catastrophic health crisis. The promise of a new future together involves the abolition of the old in the hope of what might be possible, but is certainly not yet assured.
Artist Naudline Pierre’s first institutional solo exhibition, “What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared,” at the Dallas Museum of Art invites us to contemplate these dawning possibilities with tenderness rather than terror.
Pierre’s nine large-scale paintings – five of which were completed in 2021 – follow their protagonist through an alternate reality. We encounter a host of black female celestial beings who guide and care for the radiant central figure as she discovers her power in this non-linear journey through time and space.
The painting Lest you fall, which the DMA recently acquired for its permanent collection, sheds light on the possibility of community care in precarious situations. In the composition, the central figure that appears in seven of the nine paintings in the exhibition is captured in a moment of vulnerability, falling headlong through the canvas. Yet she is accompanied by other angelic figures who spread their wings to cushion her descent.
Due to the intimacy of the images – winged figures lovingly caressing the protagonist of Lest you fall, companions fused in a full-body embrace closer still – we may not initially feel the apocalyptic nuances of the work, but it’s right there in the title of the exhibition. The apocalypse is what ushers in what could be.
Stylized flames in works like inner power suggest the transformative quality of fire, not only to destroy but also to cleanse. The imagery of fire and water that appears in To make you whole gestures toward the two world-altering events detailed in the Bible, the great flood of Genesis and the fire of Revelation yet to come.
And yet, Pierre’s paintings reject the idea of a sudden break in favor of a softer, continuous work of communal care and collective transformation. While initial associations with the apocalypse evoke images of fire and brimstone, the word in Greek actually means disclosure, an intimate act of storytelling. The New York-based painter describes this very act in her conversation with DMA assistant curator for contemporary art, Hilde Nelson, explaining how the central figure in her paintings patiently revealed to the artist her evolution through this alternate world. . The entire conversation can be viewed on the DMA’s website.
Indeed, another world pervades Peter’s revelatory works, putting her in conversation with people like El Greco and William Blake, whose spirituality was central to their work but went against the religious views of the time. Peter avoids Eurocentric images of God as a singular figure, a bearded white man who remains aloof and above his creation. Instead, she delights in the images of the Elohim, or the Divine Plural. Across his large-scale canvases, a multiplicity of female forms of varying colors, textures and hairstyles (from cornrows to finger waves) move in and out of the fluid union – the stubborn distance between Adam and the Father on the Chapel ceiling Sistine erased like a Celestial Host intimately caresses the protagonist of Pierre.
However, the artist draws on the tradition of religious paintings to compose the most striking compositions of the exhibition. Gestures and groupings nod to the Pieta and the Deposition of Christ in works like Hold me like this and Hold on, hold on. These images “take from this long history of painting, of figurative painting, of history painting, of religious painting, and replace those known figures with some of these unknown figures”, Pierre remarked to Nelson.
Too much, not enough, my favorite piece, depicts a trinity of figures in a holy mandorla. It’s included upstairs in the DMA’s European Gallery to broaden viewers’ understanding of the art historical canon, so be sure not to miss it.
Pierre’s extensive and determined use of color gradient is the most distinctive formal element of his work, and it’s why you have to see these paintings in person. The artist deftly transitions from jewel-toned magentas to absinthe-colored backgrounds in a single composition. At times, the use of complements creates a kind of visual friction. But that’s precisely the point – friction is motion that generates heat, light, power, life. For Pierre, “the color gradient is a tool to signal transition and change, to be in a liminal space and to understand that it is uncomfortable but also to understand that there is power in accepting change”.
Three of his most recent works, Hereafter you will be changed; Guardian (Elsewhere); and Guardian (somewhere), feature more subtle palettes, an evolution of Pierre’s signature color-flux. The artist undertook these experiments as a technical challenge for herself and also as a means of alerting the public to the magnitude and beauty present in darkness.
“There are so many shades in the dark. Black isn’t just flat black,” says Pierre in his interview with Nelson. “There’s hot black, cold black, brown-black…and conceptually that’s also very interesting to me, thinking about the word black and how it can be flattened and how it’s actually very expansive.”
Expansive is an apt word to describe “What could be has not yet appeared”: multi-faceted depictions of blackness beyond the myopic horizon of trauma and trope, women’s bodies completely enveloped in collective spaces of faith, healing and encouragement. Peter unleashes the tenderness and power available when we venture out with fierce commitment to one another, no matter the results.
Whether out of shyness or recalcitrance, many of us in these uncertain times still find ourselves clinging to dead ways of thinking and acting. Naudline Pierre’s boldly inclusive use of color and depictions of collective care show us that other realities for our exhausted world may already be taking shape.
“What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared” continues through May 15 at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. To free. Call 214-922-1200 or visit dma.org.