The death of renowned Canadian artist, Alex Colville, last summer was a moment to mourn, but it was important for Andrew Hunter, curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, that he and his team did not close the book. The intention of AGO’s latest exhibition, Alex Colville, is not to memorialize the realist painter and his life but to reflect on “his phenomenal legacy—70 years of working as an artist, a very serious committed artist, a very serious Canadian artist.”
To date, this is the largest exhibition of Colville’s work, which gathers nearly a hundred paintings and personal ink and pencil studies from museums and private collections across Canada as well as family archives. At the show’s preview, Colville’s daughter, Ann Kitz, had these words to poignantly close her opening remarks:
My father’s gone and, in time, his personality is going to fade. And in time all of us who knew him will be gone. But that won’t matter, because his paintings will endure and they will always speak for themselves.
Rather than producing a chronological installation, Hunter decided to approach this show thematically, and this well-curated show accomplishes what it set out to do, bringing Kitz’s words to life in one place by showing just how his unique vision endures.
This exhibition goes beyond the artist’s works and explores the Canadian painter’s influence and international relevance. Upon entering, one will find a looped excerpt from Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) of Suzy standing atop a lighthouse and peering through a pair of binoculars. The scene echoes the piece beside it, one of Colville’s most recognizable works, To Prince Edward Island (1965), in which an older woman at sea uses binoculars to look off into the distance. Throughout the show are other pairings of Colville’s work with work from prominent artists including filmmakers Coen Brothers, and Sarah Polley, and author Alice Munro, revealing his profound impact in other media.
Alex Colville was a realist painter during a time when abstraction was gaining popularity. Yet his voice and vision were unyielding. He reconstructed worlds as he saw reality and captured moments that were simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary. As Marc Mayer of National Gallery of Canada calls him, Colville was less a private artist and more a personal artist. This is especially evident in the final section of the exhibition that centers on the theme of Love, Life and Loss and features very intimate works inspired by his wife Rhonda.
Hunter, explains that part of what makes Colville’s paintings so powerful is their existence in an in-between space—being “not absolutely not of a place” but being “a slight distance from it.” As a result, his works feel both familiar and unfamiliar, both deeply personal and universally accessible. While there is casual quality to most of his work, they still seem to carry an ominous tone that could be derived from the painter’s war experiences. The ambiguity of Berlin Bus (1978) is haunting. The female subject may be running to catch a bus or she may be trying to escape looming danger. It’s an everyday scene that is all the while unsettling.
After serving in War World II, Alex Colville lived a quiet life, settled in the towns of Sackville, NB and Wolfville, NS. Drawing from his small-town life in the Maritimes, he created seemingly mundane scenes that resonate not only locally but also nationally and internationally. AGO’s Alex Colville is not an end but a beginning. For both those who know Colville and those who don’t know his name and work, this exhibition is a place to start exploring and discussing the human condition that he figures with careful accuracy and reflect on his continuing legacy.
The Alex Colville exhibition opens today. In addition to Colville’s work and reiterations of his vision in pop culture, you can see work in response to Colville by contemporary artists, William Eakin, Tim Hecker, David Collier, Gu Xiong, and Simone Jones.
The exhibition runs from August 23rd to January 4, 2015, and tickets are priced at $16.50 for students and $25 for adults. To book tickets visit https://tickets.ago.net/alex-colville
Also check out the online exhibition at www.welcometocolville.ca