By Ilona Kauremszky
Special to

Life and death and then there’s Alex Colville. Considered among Canada’s most celebrated and iconic contemporary artists his passing last year has left an echo in the world that is both familiar and alien and dare I say uniquely Canadian. It’s a world where vast sparse dark landscapes are dotted with lone figures and a place that soberly shows us the dance between life and death.

There’s arguably a gaping hole in the Canadian cultural mosaic now that he is gone but on the other hand gallery goers who visit the Art Gallery of Ontario will see that space filled if only temporarily in the groundbreaking exhibition simply dubbed Alex Colville. One hundred works have been culled from public and private collections with some works seen for the first time in the largest exhibition on this extraordinary artist’s work to date.

Like the painter who portrayed everyday scenes with many of his subjects hinting at the unexpected you too as the visitor could feel hints of an uncertainty when viewing Colville’s evocative work.

Some have described him as a Canadian original.

A post First World War baby born in 1920 in a leafy but industrial Toronto who as an adult shifted to the folksy Maritimes to Wolfville, Nova Scotia went on to climb the artists ladder while defying his contemporaries who Andrew Hunter, the AGO curator of Canadian Art and curator of this exhibition described as playing the art game.

“He was a committed artist. He separated himself from the art world, the scene and worked on his art,” he tells me standing at the spot of the show in which a flickering movie clip of that now iconic scene of President John F. Kennedy’s horse, Black Jack, is seen riderless, skittishly moving behind the flag draped coffin as it replays beside Colville’s painting, Church and Horse (1964).

The painting is forever etched as one of Colville’s emblems that testament between man and nature, good versus evil displayed in stark black and white. For years I wondered about this image with the rushing horse. Now thanks to the exhibition the painting has been given a contemporary context. Hunter uses poignant images from a pop culture landscape to expose a hairline crack into Colville’s creative process. It turns out as the show suggests after Colville watched Kennedy’s riderless horse on television he painted this haunting acrylic painting currently on loan from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition Alex Colville weaves other video vignettes, some as movie clips or stand alone taped interviews of Canadian personalities such as author Anne-Marie Macdonald discussing Colville’s connection to animals and dogs in particular or film critic Jesse Wente discussing Colville’s influence on filmmakers.

Sound artist Tim Hecker has an eerie recording that reverberates between two rooms. The mix Ann’s Pacific (2014) is of frenetic static with crackly tones like something isn’t quite right as you leave one room dedicated to one of Colville’s favourite subjects, animals, to enter another room devoted to guns and a shower scene that could be a prelude to Hitchcock’s Psycho. See other notable film references from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to the Coen Brothers No Country For Old Men. Hunter made a conscious effort to showcase Colville as a contemporary artist as he was, and not to create a memorial exhibition.

“(This is) a show reflecting on his phenomenal legacy, seventy years working as a serious committed artist, a very serious Canadian artist but also someone having a presence internationally,” Hunter says adding, “We approached it thematically around ideas to engage other artists in making work in response to Colville’s work.”

The pop cultural references give currency validating Colville’s legacy as an influencer to the next generation of talents. Colville’s impact on contemporary artists also expands into the world of comics which we discover at the AGO’s Alex Colville exhibition. The huge cult phenomenon behind comics, a topic that is sure to draw in the younger crowds, seems to be another uncanny exhibition design feature orchestrated to increase visitor numbers.

The AGO commissioned Canadian cartoonist David Collier known for his comic strip essays to create Colville Comics, a special eight-page comic book in homage to Colville seen on display (It is also available for purchase in the show’s gift shop).

Collier himself a soldier is an award-winning illustrator who describes drawing as therapy. “When I first began to serve I was given instructions to draw and make cartoons for our local newspaper,” says Collier who explains the Canadian Forces during his recruitment encouraged him to practice the arts either through musical instruments or drawing as an outlet. “Art is a therapy and that’s something I see throughout Colville’s paintings,” he expresses.

Colville, a Second World War artist in the Canadian Infantry, drew reams of studies from his time in Europe with several pieces morphing into full canvases made after his return. Early in the show you are introduced to Colville’s war years. You see a series of war illustrations big on bleak existentialism fused with that mystery and haunting isolation that was to become Colville’s signature.

There’s one study series Soldier and Girl at Station (1953) albeit done a decade after his war experience showing the departing scene of a couple. The soldier is ready to slip away into the night. Enveloping the embracing amorous pair like life and death itself are two rail lines. One has a train; the other is an empty train track.

In Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland. (1946), this 40 inch by 48 inch painting depicts a platoon of soldiers from the Third Canadian Infantry Division walking in muddy terrain toward the viewer. It feels almost like a levitating scene as the soldiers trudge on a thin Dutch polder. We learn through the exhibition that the first soldier, whose eyes peer down looking exhausted and strained is the visage of Colville’s father.

The graphic tragedy of war in its raw unedited form is always disturbing. Alex Colville in his war renderings shows us the barren bleak countryside with shells of mangled tanks crumpled like the corpses seen slumped in the field.

For me it was seeing his war studies, those simple strokes hitting the white page that speaks volumes to me as a creator. You actually see some of Colville’s creative process. You get a tiny window to peer into the extraordinary approach behind the evocative images. There is one in particular titled: Bodies in a Grave, Belsen (1946). The studies of Berger Belsen alongside other war subjects now lay together inside a display case under protective glass while the original painting openly hangs. Colville was one of three Canadian war artists who entered the Berger Belsen concentration camp located in northwestern Germany after being liberated by the British forces. Seeing his profound war images of the brutal carnage, man’s inhumanity to man, pure evil is gapingly exposed like a mass wound on the canvas.

“I think for Colville that shadow of the war was there for his entire life,” says Hunter.

Colville’s subjects are depicted as life itself. There’s the underlying subtext of the unknown foreshadowing the inevitable. Yet his scenes are quiet, contemplative stripped of any judgement and pure. There is indeed a visual poetry knowing that time is finite and we all have only a short time on this earth.

Colville was the exception. He was 92 years old when he passed away last summer. But gallery goers only have a small window to see this significant temporary exhibition. The AGO’s Alex Colville exhibition opens on August 23 and ends on January 4, 2015. For details and tickets

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