Friday, August 29, 2014

Order and Ambiguity: The Alex Colville Exhibit at the AGO

Seven Crows, by Alex Colville (1980)

In 1983 the Art Gallery of Ontario presented the first retrospective of Canadian artist Alex Colville. David Burnett who met the artist at his home in Nova Scotia curated the exhibit. In his book Colville [McClelland & Stewart, 1983] that accompanied that show, Burnett was particularly apprehensive of the job, saying that “to present the work of a living artist is a special responsibility that must rest upon a relationship of openness and trust between artist and curator.” I would be curious to know Burnett’s opinion of the new Alex Colville exhibit that opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario on August 23rd. For this exhibit, the artist, who died in 2013, was not part of that 'special relationship' of which Burnett puts much importance.

Alex Colville is less of a retrospective and more of a “greatest hits” collection of his most familiar works. Its aim according to curator Andrew Hunter is to “give people a lot of entry points” into the acclaimed artist’s work and life. On some level this exhibit succeeds in covering the fundamental story of the artist and the evolution of his work. (Hunter should be commended for pulling together this many pieces from private and public collections around the world.) Considering how popular Colville was with the general public, why the need to offer “entry points” in the first place? After all, Colville licensed his images for calendars, record albums and post cards. He wanted to be a popular artist and succeeded earnestly for most of his 70-year career, including the unique design on the backs of the Canadian coins issued in 1967. (That year, he was literally in the pockets and purses of all Canadians.)

Cyclist and Crow, by Alex Colville (1981)

The 2014 exhibit is broken down into six segments or thematic collections: Everyday Colville, iconic images from the 1950s and 1960s; War Artist, featuring his early works from the Second World War; Home From Away, featuring domestic images of family; Animals, featuring works of dogs, crows and horses; Inherent Danger, featuring works that suggest either murder or suicide; and Love, Life and Loss, featuring images of his wife, Rhoda, his principal model during his entire career. Rhoda died in 2012. For me, as a long-time fan of Colville’s work, the last group of images was the most moving for their personal touch and genuine humanity.

In the interests of bringing a contemporary context to the works of art, several video installations are included featuring commentary from Colville’s daughter, film critic Jesse Wente, who talks about the relationship of Colville’s work and the films of Stanley Kubrick and the Coen brothers. (Warner Brothers wouldn’t allow images or footage from Kubrick’s film, The Shining to be shown) Writer Ann-Marie Macdonald waxes eloquent on her favourite Colville work, “Seven Crows” (1980), and there's also a compilation of footage featuring author Alice Munro and Alex Colville discussing the similarity of their work. There was great interest in these shorts by the public on the night I attended, but while I found them interesting, their accompanying commentaries end up being superfluous because they’re too short and superficial. I would have liked a video about Colville’s technique as a painter, for instance or footage of him at work in the studio.

Family and Rainstorm, by Alex Colville (1955)

That said, a separate installation by Tim Hecker, a composer and audio artist, worked for me because he was trying to create the ambient sounds of space between objects, inspired by Colville’s mix of precision with the unpredictable. That point was juxtaposed by a short film of Colville’s 1983 AGO retrospective featuring B-roll of Colville and his wife at the opening with a cut to the artist walking alone through the exhibition of his own work. This was the only acknowledgement of the first exhibit at the AGO, thirty years ago. For individuals who attended that show, the 2014 display could be Colville Redux, with the addition of several works after 1985. While it was great to see these paintings, like old friends, this curated exhibit fails to properly inform the viewer. What we get is a chronological display of over 100 works grouped together in an accessible fashion. To me, the Colville story could have been told with fewer paintings, not more. For this exhibit, Colville’s work needed more space to breathe, much like his art where the background environment is essential to understanding the mystery of the subjects in the foreground. For me, the contrasting ideas of Colville’s work, especially in "Cyclist and Crow" (1981) and "Family and Rainstorm" (1955) offer dynamism all on their own.

Infantry Near Nijmegen, Holland, by Alex Colville (1946)

Nevertheless, the strength of Colville’s work lies in his orderly and linear design and the ambiguity of the subjects depicted in them. To Colville, the world is neat, tidy and predictable, but the humans and animals that live in it, are unpredictable which speaks to Colville’s definition of place, rooted in his paintings from the Second World War. (The importance of Colville’s wartime paintings thankfully isn’t spared in this exhibit.) For newcomers, Colville offers a huge selection of his work that may overwhelm rather than enlighten. I’ve always enjoyed Colville’s works in smaller doses because they’re so poignant: each one a visual meal in itself. Consequently, this exhibit encourages repeat visits to fully appreciate the skill of the artist during his lifetime. Colville’s paintings haunt us by challenging our sense of reality and our relationship with the environment. They are also full of humour, which this curated exhibit seems to have missed by trying to please the audience rather than challenge them. Indeed, when is comes to the work of Alex Colville, sometimes “less is more.”

Alex Colville is on display at the AGO until January 4, 2015.

 John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's currently writing a book about Frank Zappa for Backbeat Books.

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