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.

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11 Responses to Alex Colville at the AGO

  1. Brian Power says:

    Yes, unfortunately, that town has already earned the sobriquet “Snackville,” because of the rapidly encroaching fast-food outles and strip malls. It is most painfully palpable if you’ve been there in recent years but yet still remember the historical buildings that used to be there, both on campus and off. Recent constructions are eyesores, now and for the future.

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      You know Brian, we saw a great model in England. We saw how a thriving modern town can coexist beautifully with a huge medieval building that has stood for centuries, and has given the town a sense of pride. That ancient cathedral in Worcester has been a place to gather and celebrate and mourn and remember. What we are doing in Canada is shameful. Tearing down our historic buildings that have served us for as long as we’ve been here. We are impoverishing future generations, and for what purpose? If only urban planning played out like a chess game, and city councillors had to look ahead at least three moves…

      • Brian Power says:

        Yes indeed – Worcester was inspiring. They didn’t shy from the fact that maintaining such monumental building is horrendously expensive -they told us exactly how much it costs every day! – but it is clearly a high priority for the city and the county.

        • Brian Power says:

          In fact, their attitude was so inspiring that it was a privilege, as a visitor, to put somemoney in the donation box. We need someof that kind of inspiration here at home!

  2. Abner Martin says:

    Stephanie: Your mom speaks of her encounter with Alex Colville at Sackville United Church (in happier times) after her Junior Choir performed the musical Daniel, complete with young maidens dancing down the aisle of the church. Following the “service” Colville told her, “It would be fine with me if you had dancing maidens come down the aisle every Sunday”, or words to that effect.

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      That is a wonderful story Dad! I really did not know that Alex Colville had taken notice of our little play, and how wonderful that he spoke to Shirley. I remember singing that musical, but more vividly I remember painting huge banners. We needed to paint very large black lions on bed sheets that were hung across the front of the church. A lion’s head is surprisingly hard to capture in that medium – especially for an 8 year old artist.
      Think of all the incredible events that transpired in that church. We simply can NOT let it be torn down.

  3. Renée says:

    Is Sackville United the church that Eve had the suggestion for the future of (center of / gallery for Inuit art)?
    If so, have you thought more of her idea?
    and, anyhow, Do Jemma and Richard get this blog.thing of yours? They’d like your obsevations on the Colville exhibition at the A.G.O.

  4. Cori Martin says:

    So Steph, you mused upon what happens if the horse keeps running? Here’s a ditty I wrote some years ago on that very subject, fyi! (It goes with my “ekphrastic” collection.

    Alex Colville (1954)

    Brown and brittle, salt-marsh sedges spread
    to the picture’s edge. In the falling dark, tracks,
    banked up from ditches, grip the gravel bed:
    railroad ties whip by cinematically.
    From the right a dark horse races riderless
    into view. With unyoked locomotion
    he laps the track. No bit or tether reins
    his brute force in. His silhouette,
    in solitude, charges toward the vanishing point.

    But, sleek and black, straight down the line,
    an iron horse is coursing into center frame:
    the night train Death, its power unbridled,
    flicks its long, black tail behind.
    The silver rails stream out before the single
    beaming headlight’s glaring Cyclops eye.
    The steaming engine’s moonlit fumes go floating,
    roaming ghosts against the haunted sky.

    Doomed horse: he’s in the dark, not knowing
    how his destiny’s been harnessed to the hurtling train.
    Can’t he hear the engine’s piercing shriek?
    Or feel the quaking earth beneath his feet?
    Or see how fast their fateful junction comes?

    (But then, who ever knows they’re in the stretch,
    galloping blind toward the finish line?)

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      I love this poem Cor. It grasps the tension of the scene.
      The painting is displayed at the AGO very near the cow in the moonlight, and the train’s headlight and the bright moon are very similar, but so different.
      Maybe you wrote one about the cow as well? it would be a much more peaceful poem.
      P.S. May I set this to music some day?

      • Cori Martin says:

        Yes you could set it to music–but how would it end–with a bang?

        • Cori Martin says:

          P.S. One of your Facebook friends mentioned Bruce Cockburn’s album that has the Colville painting as the cover. There’s actually, not coincidentally, a Bruce Cockburn allusion in the second line of this poem! “In the falling dark” is the title of one of his songs, though not from the same album. ( I think I was conflating the song and the album cover in my memory.)

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