Alex Colville: Return

by Tom Smart
ISBN: 1550549820

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A Review of: Alex Colville Return
by Olga Stein

I've always admired the art of Alex Colville. I've found myself mesmerized by that inexplicit something' that's depicted by the seemingly ordinary subjects of his paintings or serigraphs. Beneath the melancholy but placid surface I sensed a perturbation so palpable, that it-and not the subdued colours of the paintings-conditioned my emotional response. Now with Alex Colville Return, Tom Smart illuminates both the artist and his art, and I'm able to understand why Colville's work had such an affect on me. According to Smart, in order to learn something essential about Colville, it is imperative to look at his war-time experience:

"Colville the artist is still Colville the soldier; with every painting and print, he revisits the moment he stood at the edge of the mass grave in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, witnessing the atrocities committed by human beings against each other. Colville's art. . .is a visual testimony to this memory: his paintings, prints and drawings wrestle with the questions of what it is to be human and what it means to live in this world, questions he asked as he saw and drew the bodies in in the pit."

Colville's tableaux are designed to elicit, not necessarily on a conscious level, the sense of an impending crisis or clash. On a grand scale, that clash is between life and death, between good and evil, between order (whether natural or man-made) and chaos. The tenuousness of all things good, all that we value as individuals, as members of a family and a greater community, is a realization war bequeaths those who live through it. It is this anxiety-inducing understanding of the world and of man-his capacity and incapacity to safeguard the moral order, or to withstand, despite all technological advances, the superior blows of nature, or to remain young and vital-that shapes the narratives of Colville's paintings. This is precisely why they are so unsettling. An elemental conflict is always being suggested. What you see is a metaphor for another event the contents of the pictures never fully reveal. The images are realistically and precisely rendered, but their meaning is nonetheless obscure, mysterious. And this is what makes Colville's work so powerfully enticing.
Tom Smart provides page after page of excellent analysis of both the composition of the paintings reproduced in the book and the artist's motives. The book is expertly organized into two parts. The first part deals with Colville's early work as a war-time artist and the way his experiences bore on his choice of artistic style. He adopted the goals of magic realism. Smart explains:

"By juxtaposing seemingly unrelated images and contexts, eliding space and time, and rendering enigma, obscurity and allusive puzzles realistically, Colville and his magic realist brethren mined a collective unconscious, the language of myth and metaphor, in an effort to describe symbolically aggression and trauma."

The second part of the book groups Colville's art thematically. While all of Colville's art appeals to me, I found the work in "Longing" and "Mortality" most compelling. In the "Longing" section the sea symbolizes a force that can take away or bring back a loved one. In many of these paintings boats are either moving away from a figure on a dock or wharf or sailing towards her. In either case, water is that which separates the individual shown from the one he/she longs for, though in "Departure" (1962), in which a young woman stands in a telephone booth on the edge of a wharf while a departing freighter is shown in the distance, we are also made to see that it is the affairs of men that are the primary cause of the separation.
"Mortality," writes Smart, "exists as a phantom presence in virtually all of Colville's images." He continues:

"It shows up as alienation in the relationships between figures, especially between man and woman or between human and animal. It appears in a sinister cast, an unsettling mood or an unresolved tension. Colville's art suggests life's fragility, the passage of time, the approach of death, the effects of age on the body; and it reminds viewers of mortality-his and theirs."

The paintings in the "Mortality" section are the most haunting. The "Living Room" (2000) and "The Studio" (2000) are perhaps the starkest reminders of death's hovering presence, but other works in the section succeed in unsettling by conveying the idea that the interior scene, usually depicting the artist and his wife, is a circumscribed oasis of comfort and safety surrounded by the dark or cold (see "Snow", 1969, "Refrigerator", 1977, and "Singer", 1986) menacing world outside, and that the impression of security within the home or the relationship is illusory. Alex Colville Return will please anyone interested in Colville's personal history and the personal philosophy that directs his art. A beautiful and timely publication.

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