Skip To Content

Alex Colville, painter of the ordinary

By Raymond Aubin on July 31, 2015

There are just a few more weeks left to visit the exhibition of Canadian painter Alex Colville at the National Gallery. It is not to be missed.

Mozart wrote that the virtue of the concerto lies in the fact that it offers something to both the connoisseur and the amateur. This can be said of Colville’s paintings too. And that may be why the artist’s popularity has been unrelenting.

In many ways, Colville’s paintings are unassuming. Their dimensions are relatively modest by today’s standards. There is nothing monumental about them. Their colours are pastel and low contrast. The paint itself is quite thin with fine strokes and dots – don’t look for impasto. As the exhibition presents both paintings and screenprints, it is difficult to tell them apart at first glance.

Alex Colville. Living Room, 1999-2000. Acrylic on masonite, 41.8 x 58.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © A.C.Fine Art Inc. Photo © NGC.

Alex Colville. Living Room, 1999-2000. Acrylic on masonite, 41.8 x 58.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © A.C.Fine Art Inc.
Photo © NGC.

A sign of a great artist lies the quality of the dialog he creates between his subject matter and his use of the visual language. Colville’s unpretentious style is deceptive. It is in fact in perfect unison with his core preoccupation: the everyday. “It is the ordinary things that seem important to me,” he said. He found his field of exploration of daily life in Nova Scotia, where he settled. Small town life lends itself better to an acute observation of society. Colville’s works are pure moments – they are haikus.

Philosophers who have explored the meaning of day-to-day life came up with a troublesome observation. By creating a familiar universe, daily life shields us from the strangeness of the real world, its frailty, and its shifty nature. It is no more than a thin veil of coherence over uncertainty. We can’t simply walk past a painting by Colville without being hooked by something strange. Characters often do not cast shadows; their poses are rigid and unnatural – they may look like bad computer collages. Faces are often framed out, hidden, or turning away. Points of view are unconventional. Colville cracks open hidden doors into the turmoil underlying ordinary life, as if some kind of violence could erupt anytime. He leaves us with the uneasy feeling that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

The Colville exhibition was produced by the Art Gallery of Ontario in association with the National Gallery. The hanging is organized by themes as opposed to strict chronology. Several short videos share testimonies and perspectives by people familiar with the artist’s work. They are well worth watching. Below are a couple more images from the show:

Story continues below:
   
Alex Colville. Target Pistol and Man, 1980. Acrylic polymer emulsion on hardboard, 60 x 60 cm. Private collection, © A.C. Fine Art Inc. Photo © AGO

Alex Colville. Target Pistol and Man, 1980. Acrylic polymer emulsion on hardboard, 60 x 60 cm. Private collection, © A.C. Fine Art Inc. Photo © AGO

 

 

Alex Colville Church and Horse, 1964 acrylic on Masonite, 55.5 x 68.7 cm Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest and anonymous donor © A.C. Fine Art Inc. Photo © AGO

Alex Colville. Church and Horse, 1964. Acrylic on Masonite, 55.5 x 68.7 cm. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest and anonymous donor. © A.C. Fine Art Inc. Photo © AGO

 

Alex Colville. A Canadian Icon runs until September 7, 2015 at the National Gallery of Canada (380 Sussex Drive).  Tickets are $16 and can be purchased in person or over the phone at 613-998-8888. Click here for more info.