R.I.P. Alex Colville, a Canadian Treasure

For many Americans, the phrase “Canadian culture” conjures images of ice hockey and very little else. This is, of course, the sort of thing that drives Canadians to cold fury (and rightly so). Our neighbors to the North have rich traditions of their own and those looking to put themselves on a crash self-education course to correct past xenophobia   could do worse than explore the paintings of Alex Colville, who passed away last weekend. Colville was 92 when he died–a good, long life to be sure, though his art was seldom shown in the United States after the 1950s. That’s our loss; in Canada, Colville was sometimes referred to as the nation’s painter laureate.

Colville admired Edward Hopper, and that influence shows. Many of his works have a detached feeling, as if the central figure is in his or her private physical and mental worlds–even if there are others present on the canvas. One such painting was his 1965 “To Prince Edward Island,” a painting I first saw in Ottawa back in the 1980s, and the one that made me a fan of his work. One can’t help but notice the woman that dominates the work. She gazes through binoculars and, though she’s staring straight ahead, it’s clear she’s not looking at us or anyone else. What, exactly, is she looking at? Note her expression, one that’s every bit as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s smile. Now look closer. Colville makes her the center of the work, though she is listing slightly to our right and the weight of the composition is actually to our left. Now look even closer. You probably missed it the first time; there is a man behind her, though we see little but his arms and a glimpse of his head. Who is he? Husband? Lover? Stranger? (Maybe all three!) Notice also how Colville used geometric shapes that give the unbalanced composition the illusion of symmetry. That trick come from another great Colville influence–Precisionism (especially Demuth and Sheeler).

Colville delighted in making us wonder what is was we are seeing. Take “Horse and Train,” a 1954 work that first brought him acclaim. We see a black horse running full speed toward the headlight of an oncoming black train. The sky above might be ominous, or it might simply be twilight. Maybe the horse will veer away in time, but perhaps something more sinister at work here–perhaps a metaphor for the national destructiveness recently witnessed in World War II.  Black, after all, is the color of death. Note that the rails and the smoke are tinted blue, the heraldic color of masculinity and sincerity, but also strength, valor, and power. Are such qualities admirable? Surely it depends upon how they are used. Is suicide valorous?

Another personal favorite also displays motion–Colville’s 1978 “Berlin Bus.” If you need any more confirmation of Hopper’s influence, here it is. A young woman in a short skirt bolts down the payment and we do not see her face. Nor do we see those of the silhouetted passengers seated in the bus, though we can tell that they are as disengaged as the young woman is focused. She is in literal flight–like Muybridge’s famed sequential photos. Her feet are off the ground, her arms are pumping, and her drive suggests she’s either going to catch that bus, or vault over it. It’s a small drama, but a powerful one nonetheless.

Good stuff, huh? I consider it a minor tragedy that Colville’s work hasn’t been better appreciated on this side of the border. The New York Times noted that Colville studied artists that challenged him to look beneath the surface. It would be a fitting posthumous tribute if a new generation of fans rediscovered Alex Colville and began to gaze deeply into the treasures he left behind. --Rob Weir

No comments: