Vanitas

Text by Tatiana Mellema

As spouses and artistic collaborators Nicholas and Sheila Pye take both a delicate and dangerous look at married life. Working in performance, film, video, installation and photography the duo explore the teetering dynamics underlying human relationships. Staging the things that can go wrong in a mutually dependent and suffocating partnership, the artists play out scenarios arising from the facets of marriage. They use themselves as subjects performing dualities of attraction, repulsion, dependency and loss in a theatre that elicits Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco and the Brothers Grimm. Documents of their performances are presented as finished works, images reconfiguring a range of art historical antecedents from surrealist film, still life and narrative painting to nineteenth and twentieth century portraiture. Dark and beautiful, as well as challenging and funny their works are powerful emblems of the transformations that empower human intimacies.

In their series of videos and photographs Nick and Shelia carefully stage scenes akin to historical vanitas and portraiture paintings in order to address issues of impermanence. Their painterly images arrange objects such as rotting flowers and skulls in a style reminiscent of sixteenth and seventeenth century vanitas paintings, whose mementos of death were intended as moralistic reminders of the transience of life and the futility of pleasure. For Nick and Sheila however these objects are used for their state of erosion that is symbolic of change and renewal. Transformation is considered in dual portraits of the artists as well, where they resign their physicality to nature. Depicting an eerily serene submission to the realm of earthly cycles, their portraits suggest a psychological opening to the reality of impermanence.

Throughout the Vanitas corpus the Pyes’ present the necessity of coming to terms with change. Although not included in this exhibition, their recent video Loudly, Death Unties (2007) is a revealing component of this series. The final part of an ongoing film trilogy staging tensions and catharsis in love, in this video Sheila dies and floats peacefully into the air while Nick is left alone with a ritualistic fire that signals purification. By using death as a positive symbol of change, the piece completes the fable of how two people in a dependent relationship find their autonomy again. The Pyes repeatedly explore this theme of empowering new beginnings through mementos of death and love in settings that illicit imagined fairy tales and ancient myths.

Staging richly symbolic allegories, Nick and Shelia explore the cycles of transformation necessary to human intimacy. The artists expose the ever-present questions of existence that are central to our supposedly routine relationships.

1. Nicholas and Sheila Pye Artist Statement.
2. Nord Wennerstrom, “Nicholas and Sheila Pye, Curator’s Office” Artforum, April 2009.
3. Clayton Maxwell, Nicholas and Shelia Pye: Vanitas, Eyemazing Gallery 172.