Alex Colville at the Art Gallery of Ontario (August 23 – January 4, 2015)

Nearly 100 works by Canadian icon Alex Colville (1920-2013) will be showcased at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) commencing this weekend, marking the largest exhibition of the late artist’s work to date. Curated by Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s curator of Canadian art, the exhibition will honour Colville’s legacy and explore the continuing relevance of his work through thematic pairings with the work of several prominent popular culture figures from film, literature and music. Opening August 23, 2014, the exhibition will run to January 4, 2015.

Known for painting decidedly personal subject matter, Colville’s painstakingly precise images depict an elusive tension, capturing moments perpetually on the edge of change and the unknown, often imbued with a deep sense of danger.

“Alex Colville’s exacting methods and often uneasy scenes created an entirely new genre of Canadian art. His death has left a void in our cultural landscape, but his work continues to have a profound impact on artists here and abroad,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, director and CEO of the AGO. “We look forward to exploring this vibrant legacy with the help of several creative thinkers, some of whom have been directly inspired by his vision.”

Featuring works assembled from museums and private collections nationwide, many of which have never been shown publicly, the exhibition spans Colville’s entire career, including iconic paintings such as:

 Horse and Train, 1953;

 To Prince Edward Island, 1965;

 Woman in Bathtub, 1973; and

 Target Pistol and Man, 1980.

Born in Toronto in 1920, Colville was a painter, printmaker and veteran who drew his inspiration from the world around him, transforming the seemingly mundane figures and events of everyday life into archetypes of the modern condition. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982 and won a Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award in 2003. The AGO has 89 works by Colville in its collection, including seven paintings currently on display. The Gallery last presented a retrospective of his works in 1983.

Review:  Taking in the Alex Colville exhibit was indeed an intellectual and emotional journey. I couldn’t help but feel comfortable and safe in the exhibition space as I took in the beauty and intensity within the layers of paint.  Even though I just met these paintings – we could be family.

After listening to Ann Kitz, Colville’s daughter, give a moving speech dedicated to her father we were forewarned that we were in for a treat before being ushered in to see her  father’s formidable works.

Being greeted with Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ film clip as an ode to Colville’s ‘To Prince Edward Island’  as we entered the exhibition space immediately put a smile on my face.  Indeed Colville in all of his creative complexity and endearment truly captured the heart of Anderson’s.  Anderson’s tight close ups, pondering actors, cinematic moments in pursuit to dwell upon and colour esthetics ached of Colville.

I remember seeing Colville’s quintessential Canadian works as a teen a marvelling at how close the paintings were to an actual photograph.  Today I couldn’t help but feel nostalgia of those times long ago when I initially saw these paintings in art books and magazines.

Themes of family, love, grief, an underlying sinister element, the complexity of relationships, the importance of animals in our lives and how being a war hero is never far from one’s mind if one partook and survived a tour provided for a cohesive and deeply moving exhibit.

Colville was not making a portrait about the Maritimes but instead about family, his neighbours and small town life.  The realism in his paintings makes them relatable and also easy to digest into our own specific living no matter where we live in Canada.  We can’t help but think ‘I know someone like that’ or ‘I’ve seen a similar portrait everyday in my life’.

It’s no wonder the likes of Sarah Polley and the Coen Brothers were also inspired by the deeply personal but not private tones in Colville’s paintings (‘Couple on Beach’ and ‘Target Pistol and Man’).   These paintings are indeed emotionally and gravely punctuated in Polley’s and the Coen’s films ‘Stories We Tell’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’.  Even Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ has Colville’s work interspersed within the film as an offering of artistic discomfort.

I truly appreciated that throughout Colville’s work there was also an air of mystery in terms of what we were viewing as a guest.  There was movement in progress towards something or someone that only the participant in the painting was privy to.  It was a nice reminder that sometimes in life it is worth just observing as oppose to feeling the need to participate in every moment.

If you are Canadian – the Alex Colville exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario is a must see.

Experience Alex Colville online at

1 thought on “Alex Colville at the Art Gallery of Ontario (August 23 – January 4, 2015)

  1. David Rivait

    Thank you for this review…I made 2 mistakes in regards to the exhibit. One, I waited until the last day. And, two, I went with people to whom Colville was not necessarily a favourite (this exact same thing happened to me in Kobe when I went to the de Lempicka exhibit with 10 of my older students who were waiting in the gift shop before I was finished with the first room >_<').

    I felt rushed and crowded, and I don't know if I will ever get a chance to see all these works in one place ever again, since I don't know if I can make it to Ottawa in time, and the last time they had such a retrospect in Toronto was in the 70's….so they are pretty rare.

    The Hunter book was not as detailed or as vibrant as I had hoped, these paintings seen in person have such incredible DEPTH…that even a modern printed book (OR a live cursory glance with impatient friends), can't do them justice, although I'd still like to get one and make my way down to the AGO for his autograph.

    Two of the very obvious things I am almost ashamed to admit I never really noticed before until I was standing right in front of them, is that they are basically pointillist, and that he never painted a shadow under anyone, which must account for that detached, surrealistic effect of his characters almost "floating" on the canvas.



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