Colville at the AGO

My hopes were high going in to the retrospective of Alex Colville's work at the AGO this weekend, even if I knew little about the artist beforehand, being the bad Canadian that I am.

In the Globe and Mail, James Adams, whose comments I generally appreciate, gave it a lacklustre review based on the show's curation rather than the work itself. In this deflective, industry mode, I thought, the work could actually be good.

Then there's the slow turning away, I think, from the conceptual, "post-skill" art every MFA is taught these days in the académie to more popular representational subject matter, which seemed to be what Colville was all about.

Entering the show, the realism hit me first, both the tight representationalism and the focus on everyday social matters ("It's the ordinary things that seem important to me.").

The paintings are of banal interiors of Colville's house, his wife in domestic attire, animals, trains, bicycles, and chimney stacks. If you want exotic, an escape, this isn't for you. The art is extremely personal, but it is also charged with existential psychology, and laced every so often with a sense of the surreal. For its full effect to wash over you, you have to linger with it a while.

Take "Target Pistol and Man" (1980).


Colville sits at a table, there's snow outside, the décor is Spartan. Pretty mundane, but then what's with the pistol? What's with the way it hangs almost crooked in the air? And how about the piercing stare? Either he's about to kill someone, maybe you the viewer, or do in himself. The tension and sense of danger is palpable and the ambiguity, without it being totally relativistic in the way abstract art can be, makes you want more.

Not surprisingly Colville's paintings pop up in The Shining and in theme and style have been compared to films by the Coen brothers and Stanley Kubrick, as Jesse Wente discusses here and here.

Also fresh are Colville's unusual juxtapositions, arranged normally into equally atypical compositions. "Ocean Limited" (1962) and the iconic "Horse and Train" (1954) weren't paired in the show but I think they fit nicely together.


Both depict solitary figures against typically austere and dark backdrops, facing off against the machinery of modern life. In the first, the showdown is direct and visceral while in the second, it's contemplative. The works were painted eight years apart and I can't help think the horse was meant as a stand in for Colville as an ambitious young man while the walker, still the artist and still taking on the big battles, has now become wise and world weary.

Compositionally, pairings don't usually work in a frame. Nor do wide open centres. But because Colville is astute about facing his subjects inwards and drawing your gaze in, they do here, at least for me.

I get that part of the Colville aesthetic is its Gothic minimalism and cerebral quality, but it's also what made me wonder why paintings and not photography? If anything I would've improved it would've been the handling of the paint itself. The images are paper flat and the strokes robotic and stiff. In other words, there's no dance, no painterly quality, no sense the artist was enjoying himself, which deadens the work, as though the darker forces in them have indeed won out



  1. I love the post. Your last three paragraphs made me think differently about Colville. There is certainly a melancholic quality to his palette and themes, but initially I did not think the darker forces predominated. After reading your post, I'm not so sure any longer.

  2. For me, the "dead" quality of Colville's paint handling contributes to the unsettling feel of his pictures. The very stiffness of the execution works with the even lighting -- the lack of shadows -- to yield a surreal quality. As a representational artist, Colville was at linear end of the painterly-linear continuum. However, I know of two painters (both of whose names now escape me) with similar subject matter but more painterly styles.

  3. Enjoyed your piece Ivano - I am yet to see the show. The paintings look very cinematic!

    1. It's an interesting show, Chandra. Hope you do get a chance to see it.

  4. Michal Enright tours the show with the AGO Director:
    Not often the visual arts are treated on radio, so kudos to the Sunday Edition.


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