Cooper graduate follows where his art leads him


By Cathy Jedruczek

He started his first art projects by painting on walls with his mother’s red, shiny nail polish when he was 2. His mother was furious, and spanking him didn’t do the job. A year later he barricaded the door to his room, took all the baby powder in the house and sprinkled it all over the floor. He noticed that concentrating on individual surfaces would make it look as if it really snowed. He cried when he ran out of the powder. Some 20 years later, Erik Pye would find himself working intensely for two weeks on a number of small art projects that would win him a full scholarship to The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Cooper Union is the only private full scholarship college in the United States and its mission is to prepare students for professions in art, architecture and engineering. Every year there are about 1,250 candidates competing to get into this prestigious institution, but only 60 are accepted. Pye graduated from Cooper Union with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in May. His multimedia exploration of New York’s nightlife was on exhibition at Cooper Union’s End of the Year Show. Pye’s project focused on queer, cross-dressing drag culture and its role in creating a unique nightlife scene in New York. He photographed a group of club queens, most of the time directing his camera’s lens at Lui Antinous, who Pye describes as “a self-proclaimed ‘drag androgyn,’ meaning, he performs aspects of drag but, whereas a drag queen dresses to look like a woman, Lui incorporates the signifiers of both sexes.”

Pye said he saw Lui last summer, with a group of friends at club Avalon, the former Limelight disco on Sixth Ave., and thought, “They must have an interesting story to tell.” “I have always been interested in different subcultures and I thought it would be really challenging to talk about them and I thought they were visually interesting and also socially interesting,” recalled Pye. “I walked up to Lui and I introduced myself and I told him what I was thinking, just like on the spot and he was like, ‘Cool.’ ”

For two and a half months, Pye followed Lui and his group to Crobar and other nightspots where they played hosts; he took pictures and gathered footage for a documentary. He ended up with 3,000 photos and 40 hours of videotape, which took him another six months to process. His exhibit at Cooper Union, Pye said, had a clublike environment. It included photos, large paintings of club queens and a video projected on a screen. But what completed the nightlife atmosphere, Pye said, was the diversity of people who were invited to the show, including drag queens, which Pye describes as “living sculptures within a space.”

“I feel like all these different media, they each have their own place and they each have their own way of telling a different story,” said Pye of his exhibit. “It was a creation of an actual event.”

Pye continues to create and hopes that soon he’ll be able to organize another show so more people see his art. He’s now working on a book, with the working title “Identity Fandango,” which will feature photos of Lui and his friends and be accompanied by text explaining the dynamics of nightlife, the role of cross-dressing in New York club culture and Lui’s encounters with other clubgoers.

“Lui endeavors to include himself and others in a more accepting public by becoming a parody of himself, as recognizable and in-your-face as possible,” Pye writes of Lui’s behavior. “With his outfits that are the epitome of artifice and elegance, he pushes the idea of spectacle and prejudice and makes fun, but also money, fame and prestige.”

Lui said he was always photographed in clubs, but Pye was the first one to call and offer to be part of a serious project.

“I just thought it would be interesting to have a straight American from Texas do a story about a queer community in New York,” he said of his initial reaction. “It’s interesting to have somebody interested in queer art and be able to show it to the public. It’s a privilege. It’s great.”

Pye was born and raised in Austin, Tex., to parents who never cultivated his artistic talents and who divorced when he was 13. At 15, he was kicked out of the house and became homeless, while his mother continued to collect child support. Pye said he didn’t finish high school even though he liked it, because he had to worry about other things, like food and shelter. He’d find an apartment and a low-paying job, but would soon lose both because he felt “depressed and hurt” and didn’t feel like going to work. He says art kept him alive.

“I would sit in coffee shops and just draw for hours,” he recalled. “And people would always come by and talk to me about the work and they would always say, ‘Oh you’ll make it someday.’ I made up my mind about going to art school. Meanwhile, I don’t even have a high school education.”

Around 20, Pye was so determined to change the course of his life that he took his grandmother’s advice and joined the Army. He ended up at Fort Drum in New York and after three years had attended Onondaga Community College in Syracuse. While in the Army, he found out about Cooper Union and knew right away that “that was the place that I was always thinking about.” “I spent two years in the community college totally dedicated to the idea of getting into this school,” said Pye.

He applied the first time and bet with friends who said he wouldn’t be accepted. “Everybody I knew, even my friends were like, ‘I appreciate your enthusiasm, but that’s impossible. You don’t even have a high school degree.’ And I said, ‘Oh! You want to make a bet?’ ” He lost, but he doubled the bets and applied again. He had two weeks to work on a take-home exam — he should have had three weeks but got it late — consisting of six projects.

“I was completely dedicated to this test,” he said. “My whole life was into it. It was so intense. I would wake up in the morning and I would go out and spend five hours coming up with something. And then I would work till I passed out that night. And then I would do it over again. Until about halfway through I got really sick and I started getting a temperature. So I rested for a night and I did it for the rest of the time. It was an excruciating amount of work. And then after I got that done, it was like some of the best work I have ever done. It really turned out good.”

Pye got accepted, collected the money and then bought a large bottle of whiskey to celebrate. Along the way he made some of his artist friends jealous.

‘How did you do that?’ was their reaction,” said Pye. “I come off pretty goofy sometimes and I think they really didn’t think it was possible for me to do it or do it like I did it. But then everybody was really accepting. I got some hugs.”

Pye’s spirits were high, but his pockets were empty. He had to move to New York and find a place to live before his first semester started at Cooper Union. While sitting at a coffee shop in Syracuse, he struck up a conversation with David Black who was also moving to the city. Black gave Pye $1,500 and the two found an apartment in Brooklyn and eventually became best friends. Pye was in the city a week when 9/11 happened. He rushed with his camera and a camcorder to Ground Zero and used his Army ID to get closer to the site. He sold some of the footage he recorded to NBC, but he still has some unused film in his closet. He said 9/11 was an overwhelming experience, and made it hard to concentrate on schoolwork, but he “took it for what it was.”

Cooper Union proved to be a “pressure cooker,” as he put it, but he feels it gave him “access to some of the greatest minds in art history.” Pye says he can’t point to a specific person or event in his life that influenced him, because it’s a combination of things that give him an inspiration. However, he mentioned Cooper Union professors Gwen Hayman, Margaret Morton, Walid Raad, Dore Ashton and Hans Haacke who either helped him with the book project or influenced him through their classes.

Pye likes to be seen as an artist and not just a photographer or a painter, because he works in various mediums. He reinvents himself every year or so, he says, and isn’t sure what he’ll do next. At one point, he used to paint huge flowers in various poses. He described them as “psychological flowers” because they portrayed how he felt.

“When I come up with an idea that fascinates me, I put everything into it,” he said, when asked about his next project. “I just go where art takes me. I would like to do something about homelessness eventually, but who knows what I’m going to come up with? I want to be changing and evolving all the time.”