Spring flooding and forest-fires ravaged Western Canada this year, uncanny timing for the Art Gallery of Regina’s presentation of Jeff Nye: The Fire and the Flood.

Entering the darkened gallery, the installation cycle begins with sound, abruptly, like a clearing throat, “9… 19…1974…” Stories begin in phrases. Bursts of light synchronize with the voices and illuminate two walls of paintings. Water spills over a tight grid of eight canvases; on the wall adjacent, fire races upward, consuming four larger canvases set askew. With increasing frequency, overlapping sound fills the gallery until the visitor is submerged. Rather like being at a boisterous house party: certain words jump out, and no single narrative can be followed. The sound wash frustrates any expectation of a didactic museum-style presentation, and invites focus on the paintings. Time suspends. The effect of the projected light on the painted surface is magical, luminous. Details are highlighted in succession. Stop-motion animation plays out short events, as if the paintings were remembering. The subjects are the epic 1974 flood and the hotel fire of 1998. Both took place in Lumsden, a small prairie town nestled in the Qu’Appelle Valley of Saskatchewan, but could have happened anywhere, anytime.

William Gibson observed, “Time moves in one direction, memory in another.” Our human struggle is with a relentless, eroding chaos. And no matter how pure our intent, the act of remembering is not documentation. Filtered by fragments, interruptions, and wishes, memory is more dream-like, a montage. We craft images and tell stories to mitigate the loss. Technology extends our physical selves, creating a social memory. Photography is accepted as documenting reality, freeing painting from the burden of mimesis, to become commemorative, moving into the realm of emotion.

In the past decade, Jeff Nye has concentrated on investigating painting and memory in relation to technology. Echolocation (1999) revealed the history of an abandoned homestead. Ghost-like images appeared in the windows at dusk, when the interior lights were lit once more. Nye’s experiments with light painting and memory lead to animation and projection in Abandon, by the old dirt road (2006). By documenting his process from empty canvas to finished painting, and projecting this stop-motion video back onto the finished canvas, Nye reveals the history hidden under layers of image. The resulting montage mirrors the historical decay of the subject matter. For The Fire and the Flood, Nye adds a sound component, recorded interviews with fellow witnesses. Not surprisingly, each account is different. Details from one contradict, confirm or fill gaps in another. The installation plays back sound and motion with frequent starting and stopping. The interruptions and overlapping details reflect the condition of contemporary memory, both enabled and distracted by technology.

Especially effective in The Fire quartet are writhing brushstrokes, curtains of smoke that ignite into flames, sweeping upward, revealing details of the hotel bar while consuming them in a eerie glowing scarlet. Colour dominates, recalling the fauve work by Matisse, Harmony in Red. In The Flood, Nye’s careful timing of the projections creates a poetic multi-screen orchestration. Interiors glow with a Vermeer-like serenity then wash away: a kitchen bustling with meal preparation slowly fills with water. Water seeps in the window, pooling around a sleeping figure curled on the bed, then sweeps the room. In the landscapes, a person pulls a wagon filled with photographs; the weight of a train holds down a trestle bridge; an empty valley grows trees then submerges as streams turn into a lake; a car slips under the waves. The water that quenches our thirst, nourishes our crops, bathes us– easily overwhelms us, drowning, scouring.

Fire and flood are endemic cycles, cataclysmic experiences that can unite communities in heroic response or obliterate whole cities into metaphor. In contrast, the details of our lives, passions, families, and experiences are so tenuous, so easily washed away. It is our art that survives. Nye’s work holds up a mirror to the process of our collective memory.

JEFF NYE THE FIRE AND THE FLOOD – Multi-media installation
Art Gallery of Regina Neil Balkwill Civic Arts Centre
PO Box 1790 Regina, SK, S4P 3C8à
Tel.: 306 522-5940