The Alex Colville I Didn’t Know I Liked

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Alex Colville To Prince Edward Island, 1965 acrylic emulsion on Masonite 61.9 x 92.5 cm Purchased 1966 National Gallery of Canada (no. 14954) © A.C.Fine Art Inc

I’ll be the first one to admit that I wasn’t expecting to be very impressed with the Art Gallery of Ontario’s latest exhibit, Alex Colville – a celebration of the treasured Canadian artist who passed away last July at the age of 92.

It’s not that I don’t respect Colville’s work; it’s quite the opposite actually, as I have great admiration for an artist whose work “can have tentacles throughout the culture,” as Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery of Canada, put it.

It’s just that Colville’s work never particularly resonated with me. As the saying goes, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” I can tell you, however, on the eve of Alex Colville’s opening, that the AGO’s exhibit completely transformed my perception of this great Canadian master.

Arranged thematically rather than chronologically throughout multiple rooms, the exhibition is a stroll through the thoughts, fantasies, and horrors that defined (and, in some cases, haunted) Colville’s life. There’s his war art, the works depicting his cherished maritime landscapes, animals, self-confrontation and, of course, his beloved wife and muse Rhoda.

Some of the works are juxtaposed with the images they inspired in other media – Mayer’s “tentacles,” so to speak – including Colville’s famous “To Prince Edward Island” and video from the 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom, or “Elm Tree at Horton Landing” and Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love. Many others are accompanied by quotes from Colville – a refreshing insight into the work not by a critic, but from the artist himself.

On the topic of insight, one piece that struck me was “Soldier and Girl at Station” – not just for its muted hues, the genuine sentiment, or the question of whether the soldier is coming or going that remains unanswered. Rather, it was the accompanying sketches Colville drew, before going off to war, of the same scene but crowded and bustling with other passengers. Colville actually executed the painting years after the war, and the fact that he re-interpreted the scene as such a lonely embrace, in a desolate train station with the soldier’s ultimate destination in eternal limbo, lends a solemn insight into the artist’s scarred psyche.

Alex Colville
Living Room, 1999-2000
acrylic on Masonite
41.8 x 58.5 cm
Purchased 2000
National Gallery of Canada (no. 40408)
© A.C.Fine Art Inc

Colville, meanwhile, never shied away from depicting himself or his wife, Rhoda, in his work – including in their later years. Some of the most touching portraits come with these more recent works, described in the exhibit as Colville, “unflinchingly (using) his own body to lay bare the vulnerability of old age.”

Early in the exhibit, a telegram Colville sent to his new bride after leaving for war duty reads, “All signed up/Everything great/Remember I love you – May 9, 1942.” It resonates especially powerful by the time you reach the end of the exhibition and encounter one of the never-before-seen Colville works on display. This one is, in fact Colville’s final painting, which, the AGO notes, sat for months on his easel in 2010, with the artist returning regularly to view it until his daughter suggested they put it away. The painting is titled “Woman with Clock” – a poignant portrait of Rhoda, nude, her back to the viewer, a shock of white hair atop her head as she stands in front of a grandfather clock.

It’s a touching meditation on aging and time – both that which has passed and how much remains ahead. Two years after the painting, Rhoda passed away, followed by Colville seven months after.

Upon leaving the exhibit I stopped in the AGO gift shop to pick up the accompanying book of Colville artwork. Perhaps you will too. Or, maybe, you’ve appreciated everything I’ve written about Colville here for years, and I’m just late to the party.

Either way, as I said at the start, I may not know much about art, but I know what I like. And now, thanks to this exhibition, I know I really like Alex Colville.

Alex Colville runs from August 23, 2014- January 4, 2015. For information and related events, click here.