September 25, 2014

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


September 16, 2014

Workshop for COAA in Orillia

As with any firsts, I had no idea what to expect from the workshop on contemporary landscape painting in acrylic I had agreed to offer for the Central Ontario Arts Association at YMCA Geneva Park in Orillia this past weekend.

Secretly, I hoped it'd be worthwhile because it had proven difficult to free up the time.  Not only did I have to leave the kids with my most loving and beautiful partner, whose own schedule is packed these days, but I had to push the opening reception of my show in Hamilton to the less ideal Thursday evening before the Supercrawl, not to mention miss out on hundreds of opportunities to interact with my people.

But my credo (or is it a dare to myself?) as an artist has always been, "Jump and the net will appear," and happily I tumbled into a wonderfully productive time, replete with the most generous souls, as artists tend to be.

Geneva Park was a discovery.  It's a sprawling conference centre with a nice camp feel and, by all looks, tonnes of history.  The food is scrumptious and shimmering Lake Couchiching, set behind old oak and evergreens, is special.

On the Saturday evening, a few dozen attendees put on a talent show that included some decent drag and had me in stitches.

In a time when university art schools no longer offer the traditional skills, retreats of these sorts, where artists get the chance to share their knowledge and experiences, seem vital to me.  I hope they can carry on well into the future.

I need to thank everyone who helped make the experience possible: Aitana of course, the Focus Gallery guys for being understanding, Carolyn Sharpe for approaching me initially and proposing me for the gig, and Lakshman, Shanta, and the rest of the exec at the COAA for taking a chance on a youngster like me.

On Saturday, we had a walkabout to see the work that was being made in each of the different classes.  Here are a few snaps I took.


September 8, 2014

Cabbagetown Version 3

Another successful showing, my third now, at the Cabbagetown Art and Crafts Sale this weekend.  Thanks to everyone who visited, pitched in a hand, and patronized me with a purchase.  Big warm radiant vibes to you as always.

Here was my tent, clean and empty, with nice mottled sunlight hitting it, before the big rush on Sunday.  Notice the banner hanging from the top right corner.  I was awarded the 3rd Prize, meaning I'm waived into the show next year and I got some prize money.  Cheers jury.