The titles of the photos in the Rise and Fall exhibition by Nicholas Pye at Birch Contemporary are well-considered and thoughtful enough to be a narrative work independent of the images themselves. They comprise a lexicon in the way that the settings of the work, the chateaus, estates, and country houses provide a background and foil against which Pye variously situates and flexes his body.
Whether nude or clothed, Pye favours bare feet in his photos. The removal of shoes permit a return to a state of innocence, where play is unfettered by the rigidities of the wide-awake world. In a twilight, dream-state, all is permitted, the rules having been unbuttoned and loosed. In Pye’s world, the imagination is boundless and surreal – quite beyond the real, as the word surreal suggests.
While the imagination may roam free, in “Fleeting I and II” Pye implies that our expectation and its fulfillment is not necessarily assured. Both fact and fancy share a dark side. We might peer on tippy-toe, stetching our necks expectantly into light’s flicker through a window, only to have our hopes dashed, as the shadowed butting-of-the-head against the wall suggests in one of the two images. While show’s title, Rise and Fall, brings to mind the cycles and rhythms of nature, such as the ebb and flow of tides, and the rising and setting of the sun, it’s also a hint at human limits. We may heave our breasts in hope, only to experience a dissolution into despair with their inevitable exhalation. The truism, what goes up must come down, merely points to the natural order of things. Is there an escape from this cycle? The short answer, as implied by the title of the works “Nepenthe” and “Soporific Form”, is drugs.
To the ancients, nepenthe was the anti-depressant drug or drink of its time, the allaying of their sorrow and trouble. Pye’s “Nepenthe” image is evocative of both a snake and a ladder. The window brightness at the top of the stairs is negatively countered by a sifting into the darkness at the bottom. In “Soporific Form”, the image of a winding staircase before a window twists and bifurcates the implied reality of what we view. This seeming metamorphosis of the visual is what we might expect, while in a narcotic, sleep state.
“Hushed, at a Standstill” has Pye stretched out on a six-legged table piled with books. His hand is placed over his heart, as if deceased, perhaps a casualty of a Swiftian Battle of the Books. The middle legs of the table appear to cleave his flaccid body neatly at mid-section, centring all the compositional elements of the photo, including the three six-pained windows. Has Pye been a drowning victim in a river of words, his head here submerged in the rising tide of tomes? The scene, is faintly evocative of Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Theif, the Wife, and Her Lover, less the violence and sadism of the film. The association, however, of “Hushed, at a Standstill” with autopsy is unavoidable, a transition from standstill, to still life, to inevitable lifelessness.
If there is a division in this group of works between the Rise and Fall works, the Rise pieces cast a utopian glow. In “Halcyon”, Pye forms his naked body into a bud, suggesting the springtime of an idyllic, perhaps mythic age of bliss. The gesture suggests a planting of the seed of hope for a future blossoming. “Silken Web” is more overtly paradisiacal, presenting Pye as a naked Adam, either falling into a dream-state or awaking from it, bringing to mind Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam with the delicately latticed window above the figure as a freshly minted earth. More pragmatic in tenor is “Pastoral Expectation”, seating Pye at a desk as an architect of hope, for perhaps a post modern arcadia, with the grimy products of the industrial age having been scraped clean.
*Exhibition information: April 30 – May 30, 2015, Birch Contemporary, 129 Tecumseth Street, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Fri, 10am – 6pm; Sat, 11am – 5pm.
**Rise and Fall by Nicholas Pye is a Featured Exhibition of Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, 2015