Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Alex Colville at the National Gallery of Canada

To Prince Edward Island, Alex Colville
Alex Colville: A Canadian Icon, is on display at the National Gallery until September 7, 2015. I have seen this show twice now, first at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the fall, and again last week in Ottawa.

While most Canadians are familiar with Colville's imagery, visitors to the show will learn much about his life (1920 - 2013) and his approach to his art. The almost 100 paintings are grouped thematically, and references to other media (film and literature particularly), to history, and to his own life help us to better understand his work.

Infantry, near Nijmegen, Alex Colville

We see the drawings and paintings he made while working in Europe as an official Canadian war artist, beginning in 1944 at the age of 24. His war experience left Colville with a sense that the forces of chaos could be unleashed at any moment, and this feeling of imminent doom is often conveyed in his paintings.

Horse and Train, Alex Colville

We learn about the tragedy that shaped the life of his wife, Rhoda Wright Colville.  As a young child, most of her family was killed when their car was struck by a train at a level crossing.

Colville often uses train imagery in his work. The exhibition includes a video clip of a Chinese artist who talks about how he and his contemporaries saw their relationship with their own government symbolized in the unsettling image of Horse and Train.

Boy, Dog and St. John River, Alex Colville

A whole gallery is devoted to the many paintings that portray animals, in particular dogs, horses and crows. Colville felt strongly that animals represent pure innocence, and dogs played an important role in his life.

Living Room, Alex Colville

One of the most moving themes in his work, which was a revelation to me, is the ongoing documentation of the lives of the couple. Colville's wife Rhoda was his only model, and it is poignant to note how he lovingly conveys her physical presence and their emotional bond over the course of their 70-year marriage.

Sleeper (Study 10), Alex Colville

More drawings have been added to the exhibition since its first opening in Toronto. Colville's detailed drawings remind me of Renaissance sketches. Many of them include perspective lines and organizing shapes of circles and triangles.

Being able to see the paintings up close reveals the minute brush strokes that combine to create seemingly smooth surfaces. I would recommend this show highly. And if you are unable to get to Ottawa, you might like to experience the show on the website of the National Gallery, which explores the artist's biogaphy, his themes, process, and contemporary responses to his work.

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