Alex Colville

One of Canada’s most prominent painters, Alex Colville has, for decades, either been revered or abhorred by critics for the kitschy, naive sentimentality of his realist paintings. This exhibition included virtually his entire output between 1983 and 1994: 25 paintings, 246 preparatory drawings, watercolor studies, and serigraphs. In this show, there seemed to be an effort to recast Colville as a process artist by providing endless examples of the way he builds his intricate compositions from his preparatory works, using such devices as Le Corbusier’s “modular” geometrical constructions.

The real attraction, however, is not the way Colville engineers his compositions, but the way he captures the essence of contemporary life by combining realism with an abstract sensibility. The sexual and social dynamics in Colville’s work are similar to those found in Eric Fischl’s paintings, but where Fischl foregrounds the psychic disturbances of his subjects, Colville makes these themes subordinate to his compositional principles.

In Woman with Revolver, 1987, a nude woman, her head cropped out of the picture, points a revolver at the ground. A set of stairs to the left leads to the illuminated lower level of the house, the only bright section in the painting. Colville pulls us in, inviting us to witness this scene not only as observers but also as potential intruders. The near-photographic realism gives this work, paradoxically, a completely unnatural, if not surreal quality. What has or is about to happen remains unclear, and the ominous female figure becomes simply a visual element like any other, fulfilling a particular compositional function. In Horse and Girl, 1984, a rider and horse are shown galloping down an incline, but it is the lines of a metallic hydroelectric pylon that draw the viewer into the structure of the painting.

In one of the most effective paintings in the show, Tir à la cible (Target practice, 1990), a psychological and compositional, tension exists between a younger man in the process of shooting at an unseen target and an older man. The young man’s body faces us, yet his head is turned, and the older man, who stands in profile, examines the result of the shot with binoculars. While we cannot see the target upon which these two figures are focused, the series of vertical wooden posts that begins in the foreground of the painting and steadily recedes into the background, extending the work behind its frame, signals that Colville is also working with the history of abstraction here. Though Colville builds his compositions and paints his subjects with methodical precision, these very real scenarios actually speak to the principles of abstraction.

John K. Grande