“Unspoiled” At Curator’s Office to June 22 Did divorce make Nicholas and Sheila Pye more interesting?

Nicholas and Sheila Pye, “Fortify” (2013)

Nicholas and Sheila Pye, two of the most admired and productive artists in the Curator’s Office stable, have the great honor of putting on the last show at that gallery space. At the end of June, art dealer Andrea Pollan will relocate Curator’s Office to a space to be determined. It’s a fitting send-off, a show that speaks to uncertainty, intimacy, and collaboration, just as Pollan’s microgallery space has done in a broader sense, show by show, for nearly a decade.

For its part, Nicholas and Sheila Pye’s exhibit could have worked just as well at the National Gallery of Art, alongside the John Everett Millais paintings in the ongoing Pre-Raphaelite survey.

The Pyes’ photographs use the same Victorian vocabulary as Millais did for his notorious “Ophelia” painting. There’s the primacy of the natural setting, for starters: The landscape is as evocative as the figures in the Pyes’ photos (the figures being Nicholas and Sheila Pye), just as Ophelia’s sad story is told primarily through the symbolism of depicted flowers. In her review of the National Gallery show, New York Times critic Roberta Smith panned the “moralizing and endless intricacies of the Pre-Raphaelites.” That’s part of the Pyes’ show as well, though the subject of their anxiety is not art or the viewer but what’s sitting right in front of them: each other.

Nicholas and Sheila Pye—artist partners who were once married but are now divorced—examine their collaboration through collaboration, and more specifically, through photography and film. One disappointing difference between this show and prior exhibits at Curator’s Office (and the Phillips Collection) is a lack of video. Although they created a film as well as other photos, this show comprises just four large-scale digital color prints. The Pyes work project by project, reuniting in this instance at a friend’s home in Spain to make work, the way a band might record an album. The four photos on view at Curator’s Office could be considered an EP.

And four photographs suffice: They are dense, even laden. In “Immoveable,” both artists sit at the foot of a tree, surrounded by ferns; Sheila pushes on the tall tree trunk as Nicholas looks on, but the action goes nowhere. “Fortify” depicts Sheila, her back to the camera, standing at the entrance of a time-worn stone barn. The stream in “Submerge” recalls Millais, but Sheila is posed just like the figure in the Andrew Wyeth painting “Christina’s World.” It’s an almost embarrassing mashup of painterly motifs about vulnerability. This work feels reblogged, Tumblrized.

With their arte domestica, the Pyes face a problem no couple could envy: How do you make a work with another person about things not working out with that person? Interpersonal logistics aside, it is a tough thing to depict or even abstract: Work that is truest to a frustrating, painful, or mundane experience with another person cannot take the form of art that is always excellent. There’s only so much you can (or should want to) read from the Pyes’ real-world relationship from an art-world remove, but speaking strictly about the art, the joy and experimentation from the Pyes’ early cycles is gone. What remains is harder to watch—but perhaps more compelling to see.

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