Alex Colville at the AGO

A word with the artist, who is now safely dead
Alex Colville, you are irritating. Are you an artist of stature or not? Certainly, your output over a long lifetime deserves respect. Your work ethic, commitment and perseverance is unquestionable. Your technique, solid and consistent.
And yet, and yet … you seem so chilly, distant, stiff. Your renderings of human figures are awkward and oddly proportioned. When your subjects show their faces, their gazes are mannequin blank. When you hide their faces, the disturbing, anonymizing effect becomes predictable and a bit tiresome after a few paintings.
Some artists can lean on their talent and dazzle us with virtuosity. Would anyone describe you as talented, Alex? Determined, methodical, calculating … certainly. And you have a gift for engineering still life dramas that have resulted in more than a few iconically memorable scenes. You are able to disturb, but seem unwilling or unable to attempt to resolve.
Well, that’s not fair. You do try to impose order and permanence on our unpredictable existence, underpinning transitory moments with geometrical grids and precise linear perspective. Ruth Colombo thinks your work looks “freeze dried” but others praise your stop-action stills as timeless.
John Robert Colombo observes that you are at least as much an illustrator as a fine artist. I think that’s true, and accounts for your accessibility to a wide audience. Your painstaking observation and your patient attention to detail are easy to appreciate. Thank goodness for that, because there’s not much that’s easy about your work, Alex.
The large show helped Danica warm up to you more than she did after the smaller U of T show we saw a few years back. She responded to your images, especially later in life, when you painted your wife, your pets and the places you loved.
For my part, I am not finished with you, Alex. I will continue to wrestle with my understanding of your place in Canadian art history and your merit as a painter, acknowledging your importance, but struggling with how important.
About the paintings in general
For all their carefully ruled geometric perspective lines, Colville’s pictures look flat, as if he had depicted each element separately and then glued the cutouts onto the background. Colour areas and even negative shapes have this cutout appearance. In spite of all the meticulous modelling and shading of shapes, there is no gravity in most Colville paintings. Rarely do his figures cast shadows, but he knew how to do shadows because they are occasionally present.
Colville was as careful with the tonal construction of his compositions as he was with his delicate brush dabs. Photographic reproductions are brutal distortions of his work, adding and exaggerating contrast that is false. Sometimes Colville’s surfaces are so subtle, they border on insipid. Sometimes they are so subtle, they look like masterworks of the pre-Renaissance. Reproductions, oddly, can either make his work look worse than it really does, or in some cases, better.
There is an unusual sameness about Colville’s work, decade after decade. I did not get a sense of development, either artistic or psychological. He seems to have had his vision and his technique pretty much decided in his 20s and then kept at it, year after year. There is some development in palette, from the limited range of his war artist days to a fuller range later, but his use of colour is always cautious and controlled.
Of the hundred or so paintings in the show, only a few really “did it” for me, but that’s enough to make a trip to the show worthwhile. What’s more, the one’s I liked will probably not be same same ones you favour.

3 thoughts on “Alex Colville at the AGO

  1. I’m sure that the Star, or the Globe or (insert deity here) forgive me, the Sun, could use a new art critic. Get paid to see art, write from home, sounds good. I nominate Bill Andersen (who personally made my visit to the Picasso exhibit at the AGO a memorable experience).

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