Since Nicholas and Sheila Pye debuted in the Washington area at Curator’s Office in 2006, art enthusiasts have had no lack of opportunity to gossip. If the couple’s art is rooted in their relationship, then any analysis of their video and photographic portraits depends on picking up cues from their on-screen chemistry. Of which there has been plenty.
The whispers around “Amend,” then, will only grow fiercer given the news that Nicholas and Sheila Pye — a couple who have made their marriage the subject and material of their work — have now divorced. All six photos in this show stem from a collaboration that took place during their separation.
So it may be time to rethink the work of Sheila McGrath — who retains her married name for her collaborative projects with Nicholas Pye, which will continue, according to Curator’s Office director Andrea Pollan, despite the divorce. It will not do to think of their work strictly as a lens on the artists’ marriage.
What if this is the best work their collaboration has ever produced? “Ascendant,” a photo in which McGrath appears to hover in transcendence, her face distorted with the mixed pleasure and pain of ecstasy, may be the single best photo produced by the couple. It is not the most playful — this series lacks that characteristic quality — but the portraits are more carefully staged.
“Floral Fowl” and “Floral Swine” are a his-and-hers pair of self-portraits in which the artists obscure their faces with dried flowers. These portraits mirror each other in that they refuse to tell anything to the viewer. No comment, the artists could be saying.
If the artists’ work is any indication, their relationship has matured — but let that be an end to any speculation. What they continue to do well is to explore romantic themes that extend well beyond their own romance, or lack thereof: a ladder climbing into nowhere, a figure that seeks to float away, solitary fields of long stalks of grain.
When the artists’ work isn’t heavy-handed or melodramatic, it has a tendency to run in the opposite direction: mumblecore portraits of youthful idealism. If their separation has meant that they have made some distance from these poles — toward photographic work with room for ambiguity — then so much the better for the viewer.
“The Coronation,” on view at the Phillips Collection, is quite typical of the artists’ video work: It’s a methodical, allegorical, moody vignette. But in its aspiration to evoke a painterly mood, it reveals something hidden about the artists’ evolution.
A triptych of videos playing simultaneously on three long, panel televisions, “The Coronation” pays homage to the 16th-century religious paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder. On the left and right screens, Nicholas and Sheila Pye appear, respectively, against backgrounds that alternately appear to be darkness or a grassy, hilltop village scene. The nude artists are a contemporary Adam and Eve: Nicholas, pale and potbellied, and Sheila, pink and muscled.
The artists walk into their respective frames from the outer edges of the triptych and progress toward one another at a maddening pace. It’s sleepy yet distracting: While there’s more action happening in the central video panel, every tiny move of a muscle by the medieval figures draws the eye away. When Nicholas and Sheila drag their way across respective panels, they disappear into the panel that the other has just left vacant (skipping over the central panel).
That’s it. The action in these panels is studied and slow, like molasses, or rather, like one of Bill Viola’s slow-motion video portraits. Nicholas carries dried twigs while Sheila carries a tiny apple — like their counterparts from Cranach’s 1533 depiction of Adam and Eve — and, as they slowly progress from their respective panels into one another’s, they trade implements.
The central panel makes reference to a Kabbalistic text known as the Book of the Penitence of Adam, which explains that seeds from the Trees of Life and Knowledge were planted in Adam’s mouth after his death, growing into the burning bush beheld by Moses and, eventually, the wood that would be used to crucify Jesus Christ. In the Pyes’ video, Sheila lies down and Nicholas mourns over her body, while a burning bush emerges from her mouth.
But again, that’s it: Seasons change, the artists hold hands, they fade away (mortality being a favorite theme), Christian symbols come and go. There are no accidents, and the artists’ correspondence with Cranach isn’t subtle. The Phillips Collection has tried to create a further correspondence with Georges Rouault’s 1930 painting “Tragic Landscape” by hanging it in the room with the video, but this is a nearly senseless effort: It can hardly be seen in the dark.
It’s fairly straightforward, then, to connect the dots between the original sin of Adam and Eve and the conflict that Nicholas and Sheila evoke. But in previous video works, this conflict took the form of comedy — slapstick, visceral interactions between the artists and their bodies, and no less important for it. Perhaps the Rouault nod is accurate, and the work has turned to tragedy.
It rather seems that they’re looking at painting and gesture to convey mood. The morality plays? The blatant allegories? Thinly veiled metaphors? Winter color palette? Whether or not they’re looking at Andrew Wyeth, Nicholas and Sheila Pye are certainly looking like him.
Capps is a freelance writer.
at Curator’s Office, 1515 14th St. NW, Suite 201, through Saturday. Open Wednesday-Saturday noon-6 p.m. 202-387-1008. “The Coronation” is on view at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, through May 7. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., with extended hours Thursday until 8:30 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. 202-387-2151.