New publication memorializes titan of art

colvillebookEDITEDA look at Alex Colville’s life and legacy.

Goose Lane, 168 Pages, $45.00

Alex Colville’s popularity is not some sort of accident. He laboured over each one of his iconic paintings and prints for months, in an attempt to answer the question “What is life like?” In a way of commemorating Colville’s artistic legacy, Goose Lane released a book about the artist this August that also serves as the catalogue for an exhibition of Colville’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

What the exhibition’s curator Andrew Hunter does in Colville is intelligent. He has tried not to make a definitive statement about the artist’s life and work, but instead structured the catalogue (and presumably the exhibit) in a way that promotes new discussions and new ways of thinking about Colville.

Colville, born in 1920, was a student and teacher in the Fine Arts department at Mount Allison University. During his lifetime, he was often called “Canada’s best known artist.” His paintings To Prince Edward Island (1965) and Horse and Train (1954) are two of the most iconic pieces of Canadian art, second perhaps only to Tom Thomson’s The Jack Pine and West Wind.

In his essay “Welcome to Colville,” as well as the book’s first section of images, “Echoes,” Hunter includes other cultural items, films, photographs, song lyrics, and writing which have some sort of connection with Colville’s work. Readers might find it surprising that no other visual artists are mentioned in this section. This steers the discussion into new territory, avoiding the typical discussions of Atlantic realism and regionalism in Colville’s work.

In his writing, Hunter asserts that Colville could have lived anywhere, yet stayed in the Maritimes because of his devotion to his wife, Rhoda. This claim is meant to establish that Colville was not primarily concerned with painting scenes from Atlantic Canada, but instead used his milieu as the backdrop for his exploration of what it means to be alive.

Included in the “Echoes” section are stills from the Cohen Brother’s 2007 film No Country For Old Men paired with Colville’s 1980 painting Target Pistol and Man.  Hunter writes that Cormac McCarthy, the author of the book that the Coen brothers adapted, “positions universals in the detailed specifics of place.” Like McCarthy, whose work is primarily centered along the Texas-Mexico border, Colville also attempts to deal with universals through the use of their specific surrounding areas.

The section of colour plates that follows “Echoes” features reproductions of 93 paintings, prints and drawings done during the 70-year period between 1940 and 2010. Besides presenting an impressive and diverse range of works, this section organizes the works thematically rather than chronologically. The result is that instead of being shown a linear progression of Colville’s ideas, readers are forced to consider how his main concerns recur, instead of the thorough evolution in Colville’s artistic style. One example of this is Dog and Horse from 1953, which is paired with 2004’s Bathroom. The two paintings were done 51 years apart, yet bear a fascinating resemblance to each other.

Perhaps the only real faults with Colville are that it doesn’t include more of the artist’s works, and that it doesn’t present more links within the artist’s work and to the culture it exists within. However, this is reconciled by Hunter’s statement that the book is meant as a beginning rather than an ending, and it certainly has opened up the door to further discussions on Colville’s life and work.


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