Go down to the Art Gallery of Ontario and see the Alex Colville exhibit.
If you grew up out east during the 70s you’ll be especially proud of this important Canadian painter. I didn’t know that Colville had been an official war artist during WWII. He not only witnessed the horrors of a concentration camp, but had to express that horrible thing visually. The first room of the exhibit is necessarily brutal and unfamiliar.
His mature work is entirely different – illuminated with a hyperrealism that entices you to keep looking. His figures are surrounded with bright light, but cast no shadow, giving them an other-worldly glow that pops them right off the painted page.
Colville’s favourite subjects give his work an uneasy familiarity – recurring images of the female nude, dogs, cats, horses, and eerily placed objects like binoculars and pistols. Enigmatic narratives require questions: What will happen if the horse continues to run toward the train? Why is the man so relaxed in the doorway when there is obviously a revolver on the table behind him? Is the child safe standing alone beside a huge black dog?
Many of Colville’s works are etched in my own memory. The large canvas depicting athletes hung in the fitness centre where we went swimming as a family. Here are depictions of ordinary scenes from small town life – milk delivery, the windswept marshes, figures walking in familiar streets. Our house in Sackville was “across the tracks” so the images of horses and trains and eccentric railway walkers stir up many childhood memories.
But some of the curator’s remarks need to be updated.
The curator describes the downtown scenes as “still unchanged.” A visit to New Brunswick is really required to understand how quickly downtown Sackville is losing its unique character. The house described as the President’s residence no longer serves that function. If development continues as planned, Sackville’s main street will soon look like any other strip mall in North America, bereft of its distinct historic architecture, or those iconic scenes that make Colville’s art so calming and characteristically Maritime. Sackville has already lost its War Memorial library, the Methodist church manse, the historic bandstand. I wonder who is in control, and why this is happening so quickly and so irreversibly. What would Alex Colville say?
Hence, the afternoon in the gallery had an ironic tinge, with all those inquisitive Torontonians standing about, admiring the iconic painter’s witness to a beautiful small town. 1000 miles away, many people who actually live there, who can see and touch and experience Sackville’s glowing heart, stand by and watch as it all goes to hell.