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Features / September 15, 2014

Nicholas Pye and Sheila Pye: Artists Together, and Apart

Nicholas Pye and Sheila Pye, long-time multi-media collaborators and former life partners, would like you to know something, one very simple something: not everything Nicholas Pye and Sheila Pye make is about Nicholas Pye and Sheila Pye—not their relationship, their marriage, their divorce, their ongoing friendship or any of that “behind closed doors” stickiness you may think you are seeing displayed before you. There are, as both of them put it, other narratives. New narratives.

While they continue to make work together, and apart, and have no plans to stop making art together, and apart, Nicholas and Sheila are done with the worn, fotonovela–style soap-opera readings of their work. The new narratives are much more enthralling—more dreamy and mysterious, more clandestine than kitchen-sink.

When I first met the Pyes, way back in the early 2000s, Nicholas (then known as Nick) was a cute (he’s still cute) rambunctious guy about town, a young Toronto artist with his hands in everything from photography and installation to making a short Super 8 film with performance artist Keith Cole. Sheila was the quieter half (at least, she was around me): a beautiful, lithe young woman possessed of a kind of dignified distance—the secret-keeper type (or so she appeared to me), the one who showed up just before last call, looking flawless when everyone else was messy.

Nick was the charming, laddish party guy. Sheila was the brainy, observant watcher. They played the old adage of one making the other sexy, the other making the first smart—but it was anyone’s guess (or inclination) which player was doing sexy and which was doing smart, and they constantly reversed positions.

Nicholas Pye and Sheila Pye | Loudly, Death Unties (Excerpt) from Canadian Art on Vimeo.

The rumours about them were predictable, ranging from silly to perverse. Their marriage was open. They were not really married. The marriage was traditional. They were both bisexuals, or, they were both pansexual. They came from old family money, or, they had nothing and lived in a dirt-floor basement apartment. Nick was the genius, Sheila the window dressing, or, Sheila did all the real work, and Nick was farmed out to charm buyers and curators. They had a stable of assistants and studio helpers, or, they hand-processed all of their own photography.

I was even told at one point that Nick and Sheila were not a couple at all, but actually brother and sister, and that they were messing with, laughing all the way, the art world’s fascination with “power couples.” I was also told a much more V.C. Andrews version of that same story. Everybody claimed to have “had” either or both of them, mostly because everybody wanted to “have” either, or both, of them. What fun!

I was fascinated from the moment I met the Pyes, not just because they were such a handsome package, but because they caused so much speculation. Where there is smoke, etc. (although whenever the topic of their alleged sexual frolics came up, I repeated Sharon Stone’s famous quote “You can only sleep your way to the middle,” and then listened on). So I was hardly surprised a decade and a half later, when Sheila and I re-met via Skype, that she did not remember me, did not remember co-closing local bars Sweaty Betty’s and the Beaver or an all-night Instant Coffee event.

Fun, after all, is meant to be a blur (and time is not my friend). The Toronto art scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s was, all effects of nostalgia accounted for, much more of a non-stop party than it is in these flattened and pinched times. Nick and Sheila were maypoles, the rest of us just pretty ribbons.

The work they made in those heady days, work by the cartload, only fuelled the relentless speculation about the true nature—whatever on earth that means—of their relationship: large-format photographs of a man (Nick) and a woman (Sheila) enacting under-described dramas in pastoral settings, neither character looking at the other, and both seeming to be caught in mid-negotiation, in a menacing or stunned pregnant pause. Highly charged, theatrical, erotic and layered with a kind of resignation, a thwarted recognition of the eternal male/female divide (or, to be more precise, the eternal performance of male/female roles, the binds of gender binaries), the works were thus naturally read (by “naturally” I mean “lazily”) as examinations of a fraught heteronormative relationship. From that position, how hard was it to read these works as staged autobiographies?

Nicholas Pye | Stumbling Block (Excerpt) from Canadian Art on Vimeo.

Indeed, the only work by NickandSheila (as they were known) I remember people disliking during their formative years was an installation shown in 2007 at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, in a group show meant to convey the Toronto scene at the time (disclosure: I also had some work in that show). The installation, a recreation of an abandoned room in a dilapidated house, had almost nothing immediately autobiographical about it, and viewers dismissed it as a failure because it was not in tune with the NickandSheila brand.

So much has changed. Sheila lives in Madrid with her daughter, Luna, Nicholas in Toronto. They remain friends and collaborators, but both have expanded their solo careers. Sheila is making narrative films, with actors and scripts and budgets (a feature film is in the works); Nicholas shows photography and video works in private galleries and institutions all over the world. The two were officially divorced in 2010. And yet, to both party’s joy and consternation, the brand lives on.

“We’re both tired of the ‘couple’ narrative,” Nicholas tells me. “We want to renegotiate all of that, in our work and in our presentation of our work…but public presentation, or perception, has always been secondary to us. We’ve never cared too much about how the public sees ‘Nick and Sheila.’ But I get it, it is habit forming, the old patterns of reading our work, and our own old habits. They’re the hardest to break.”

“The narrative, the couple narrative, still exists, of course,” Sheila says, “but now we’re more autonomous and also the work is more autonomous, it doesn’t need that narrative as much, if it ever did. Our relationship was an easy entry point, for everybody, us too, but our relationship was not the core, and, besides, all relationships have a performative element.”

The obvious next question: why carry on making work together?

“We still like each other!” Nicholas laughs. “Neither of us are jealous people, we’re both happy for each other when things go well in our solo practices.”

And there’s the issue of old habits, again.

“Honestly, it was scary to be a solo artist, at first. I missed the conversations, the planning, the talking out of ideas and problems,” Sheila admits. “It’s a challenge to make your own work no matter what your previous experience, and after a decade of collaborating, it is even more of a challenge. Why did I start making art in the first place, I asked myself. And I realized that making art with Nick, with another person, putting art out into the world together, negated my fears. Collaborations create safety. I needed to feel safe by myself…I think we both did.”

“It will be interesting to see what people’s entry point into our work will be now, because I sometimes don’t have a full sense of it myself anymore. But it’s healthy, having uncertainties. Healthy for me, and I think for Nick.”

Nicholas adds, “I think it was less healthy, or just less familiar, for me, at first, than it was for Sheila, but it’s not a competition. We’re both just fine!”

In my conversations with the Pyes—Nicholas in person, at his home in Toronto, and Sheila via Skype, from her home in Madrid—both artists note that they have considered opening up their collaboration to include other people, to bring other artists into their shared works and forming, as Nicholas puts it, “a proper collective.”

I find this puzzling at first, as both artists clearly benefit from, and perhaps even need to carry on with, their intertwined, post-studio practice. Three’s a crowd.

“We’re still figuring all this out,” Sheila says, “but the latest idea is to create a name, an organizational sort of name, to stop being Nick and Sheila Pye, but some other name, and from that becoming a formal collective. And I say that knowing that I am not really good at compartmentalizing my life, separating my life from my work. I know my daughter will start showing up in my work, in disguise at least.”

“I’m more open to a fluidity of narratives around our work, and I’m reluctant to pre-pigeonhole what we make next as our ‘new narrative,’ because I liked a lot of the ideas that came out of the so-called old narrative. I am not in love with the ‘artist couple’ reading either, but I don’t think the pendulum needs to swing all the way in another direction, that we have to change everything.”

Nicholas Pye | To Be Wounded Without Bleeding – Self Portrait at 35 (Excerpt) from Canadian Art on Vimeo.

Nicholas seems more primed for a 180-degree swing.

“We were never one brain, and neither of us wanted that. I take more time with the work than I did when we were only working collectively—in our full swing, it felt like we were always running, like we were in front of a train. I’m not afraid to change, because putting your neck on the line is more interesting. Sheila and I are really very much in the middle of figuring out how our next works will be presented, and what our futures will look like. And I think sometimes we both forget that in other countries, outside of Canada where people don’t know us socially, our work is not automatically read as ‘couple art’—not at first. I acknowledge that we’ve benefited from the heteronormative, male-and-female archetypal reading of our work, but that reading is a cage, and we need to break free.”

I make a casual joke about Nicholas and Sheila’s long reign as the Fred and Ginger of Toronto art, and Sheila takes the bait.

“Oh, totally,” she laughs. “When we got divorced people said to me, ‘It’s like when a band breaks up,’ and every day, every place I went, people said, ‘Where’s Nick?’”

“The last five years of our marriage felt more like an art practice than a marriage. And it was a bit of a fight for both of us to be thought of as individuals. That’s why, now, I’m more interested in working with other people, in including other people, because if we physically remove ourselves from the work, stop actually making our own bodies and faces the centre of the imagery, that will reposition the viewer as well. Literalism is hard to break—people see Nick and/or see me and they think Nick and think me.”

When you sit in a room with Nicholas and Sheila (or, in this case, share a virtual room, as I did) and watch them exchange ideas—even via the halting, stilted and occasionally irruptive vehicle of the webcam—you can’t help but notice that you are engaged with two people who care deeply about the art they make together and about how that art will have an impact on (and, yes, reflect) their continued relationship.

Nicholas tells me that he and Sheila are in regular, but not constant, communication, and that by careful planning they have worked out a way to make art that minimizes stress—both travel when they need to, and much of the work is planned well in advance and then created, processed and finalized in the city in which it is being shown. Neither can imagine working without extensive pre-planning.

“We don’t have a daily studio practice, obviously,” Nicholas says. “There is an ocean between us. We are project-based, and when we need to we can ‘meet’ virtually, every day, for as long as necessary. We don’t need a physical studio space, and in a way that benefits us because neither of us has ever been comfortable with the traditional studio-bound model. Our challenges have changed: from the challenge of living on top of each other to the challenge of being even more planning-oriented, more exact with our time together. When we were together-together, life maintenance BS was always in the way.”

“At this point, we have a shorthand,” Sheila says. “Our virtual-studio model cuts down on a lot of small stuff, because we have to make dates and times to meet and use that time well. It works out like this: conceptual work is done virtually, over webcam, and then actual physical objects or film production is done either in Canada or in Spain, and one of us travels to finish the work with the other, with all the technicians hired in whatever country we are shooting/making in. We’re actually more productive now than we’ve ever been.”

“Unless I can drive the work over,” Nicholas says, as if talking about something as simple as making a cake, “we make the work where it is being shown. A lot of people find that strange, that we don’t need to be in each other’s presence constantly, but they don’t see all the planning that goes on before Sheila or I get on a plane.”

A new Nick, a new Sheila and a new NickandSheila.

The arrangement strikes me as ideal—all the benefits of collaboration without fussing over who does the dishes. All the talking done on a laptop (which, I imagine, cuts down on loaded glances and misreadings of tone and inflection—or maybe just creates new types of misreadings, but I’m not one to pry), all the making done in a set time frame with every step planned ahead.

But, being a cynical sort, I begin to wonder if the situation described to me is too ideal? Am I being sold, I wonder, a skilfully constructed narrative about a “new narrative”—namely, Nicholas and Sheila: The Perfect Team?

How well-oiled is this machine?

Nicholas shows me several recent photo-based projects by the Pyes, photos that look like romantic film stills (granted, my idea of the romantic, which is darker and more anxious than most people’s idea of romantic), and I am struck by how much the work echoes previous works but at the same time emphasizes a formerly not-present remoteness.

Taken in a mountainous corner of Spain, the images depict a man alone in the forest, dressed to the nines, on his knees surrounded by ferns. Later in the series we meet a woman, also overdressed for the woods and also seemingly waiting or watching for someone to come along. In one image, the woman sits by a stream, while further back in the frame, almost obscured, a man sinks under the water.

Cue the easy reading. These works are allegorical; they show us Nicholas’s single life, a life half-submerged, perhaps only half-lived, and in depicting a woman lost, they show us Sheila’s displacing relocation to Spain. Conclusion: these works are about a broken marriage.

“Of course all that is there,” Nicholas says, “but it’s not there, too. I mean, you can barely see that this is me or that is Sheila.”

He’s right, in both a literal way (there is much more disguise play in the recent works) and in a deeper way—the new projects are about human isolation (from nature, from the familiar comforts of gender certainty, from physical connection) and, most interesting to me, the possible compensations, if not benefits, of that isolation. None of the characters in these works appears distressed, just static. Perhaps, even, at peace.

“I’d like Sheila and I to make things together for life, and be in the works together, to watch how our bodies change, to capture our aging,” Nicholas reflects.

“We’re both in better places than we’ve ever been before,” Sheila concludes. “Why wouldn’t we want to capture that?”

This is a story from the Fall 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To read the entire issue, pick up a copy on newsstands until December 14, 2014.