Home > Art, Culture > Alex Colville: Unambiguous Representations, Ambiguous Anxieties

Alex Colville: Unambiguous Representations, Ambiguous Anxieties

I must confess to a lack of familiarity with the paintings of renowned Canadian artist Alex Colville before venturing into the Art Gallery of Ontario’s solid retrospective of his life and work, which runs until the end of the year. Such gaps in the continuity of knowledge are surely the consequence of the essentially autodidactic instruction in art history that I’ve managed to give myself in a piecemeal manner in recent years, but I was glad to add Colville’s eerie paintings to my personal annals.

My memory has already been marked by particular memorable images of his making, certainly. To Prince Edward Island, which customarily hangs in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, is definitely familiar; it’s likely his most famous work, a sort of Canuck Las Meninas, even if it is not really his best. But it typifies the most notable features of Colville’s art: a sense of mundane realism raised to the level of the uncanny and the mythic, witty play with planes, juxtaposition, and perspective, and a core of unsettling mystery. The woman in To Prince Edward Island stares directly at us, the viewer of the painting, but the binoculars hide her eyes: her view of us is magnified even as our view of her (and the lounging man behind her) is obscured (the exhibit notes a shot in Wes Anderson’s nostalgic time-capsule Moonrise Kingdom that seems to be a direct homage to the picture). The arrangement of this quotidian scene makes it vaguely unnerving; Colville is masterly at taking moments of everyday humanity and transforming them subtly into something superhuman, inhuman, non-human.

Born in Toronto in 1920, Colville learned art at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia, where he later taught and then lived and painted until his death just last year. His formative creative experience, as the AGO’s exhibition presents almost right off the bat, was as a War Artist near the conclusion of World War II. He painted Europe’s war-torn landscapes and the bowed soldiers that made up the armies trying to restore order, but he also, vitally, witnesses the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, producing at least one fine painting inspired directly by what he saw there.

But Colville’s war experience, and his brush with the Holocaust in particular, seems to have infused an uneasy anxiety into his paint-on-canvas enigmas. Seemingly innocuous compositions of his peacetime experience in Nova Scotia college towns would unexpectedly contain seeds of the 20th Century’s dominant horror. Witness Professor of Romance Languages, a portrait of a neighbour of Colville’s who frequently walked alone, set in front of an industrial edifice whose smokestack inadvertently raised painful memories of the professor’s family past in the death camps. The supercharged resonance of Colville’s captured moments turns every detail into a potential symbol. Church and Horse, for example, gains some current affairs applicability when one learns, as the AGO exhibit makes clear, that the horse was based on Black Jack, the riderless steed being lead at the tail end of John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession (the picture is dated to 1964). But the image sounds deep wells of meaning whether or not one considers this particular source.

The AGO show finds Colville’s influence not only in Wes Anderson’s films but also in those of David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick (the notoriously exacting auteur used several Colvilles in the background of The Shining, including the resonantly symbolic Horse and Train to mark the Torrances’ fateful decision to winter at the Overlook Hotel) and the Coen Brothers, whose work Colville greatly admired. A painting like Pacific, with its calm menace and anticipatory stillness, seems to suggest a definite aesthetic affinity with the Coens’ patiently-crafted crime-noir Americana in Blood Simple, Fargo, or No Country For Old Men (the latter association is made explicitly in the AGO retrospective). The coldly superb composition of the picture amplifies the promise of violence just as the Coens’ visual poise and narrative acumen brings the inevitable bursts of hot blood out in sharper relief when they do arrive. The space is bissected by horizontal and vertical lines (cleverly referenced by the ruled table) which serve to frame the restive, casually shirtless and faceless man. But the muted colour palette is key as well, especially as the eye is caught and the mind is disturbed by the stark, intrusive black of the handgun’s barrel.

The AGO’s Alex Colville exhibition comes highly recommended by yours truly, even if it has its unfortunate omissions. Like many contemporarily-mounted big-ticket exhibitions, this examination of Colville’s paintings reads their symbols and extrapolates their sources in his personal life but has less to instruct concerning the technical features of his work. A close physical examination of the original canvases (or as close as the public is allowed to get) reveals that Colville’s vaunted vivid realism is stylistically the result of a painting method resembling a subtler pointillism, with many dot-like dabs of paint forming the entire image. None of the textual accompaniment to the pictures discusses this, nor is Colville’s clear representational approach properly situated in contrast to the increasing abstraction of modern and contemporary art advanced by his peers elsewhere in the art world. In many ways, Colville’s paintings evoke an earlier age in art, one of unambiguous representations with ambiguous significance. The earlier comparison to Velázquez was not a facetious one; Colville has more in common with such an Old Master than with a New Master like Rothko or Pollock. Alex Colville’s addition to the established profile of clear representational painting is the infusion of a very modern anxiety, that ever-present aura of an unstable present, a haunted past, and an uncertain future.

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Categories: Art, Culture

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