Farewell to Alex Colville, Painter of the Familiar & Strange

Alex Colville, one of Canada’s most famous painters, has died at his home in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He was 92.

I met Colville once. He came to the University of Manitoba in the mid-1990s to lecture. The large hall was, as befitted his fame, packed with students, professors, and community members. Alas, the technician failed to appear to show his slides, and Mr. Colville and his badly rattled professorial host were casting about for alternatives. Knowing how to run a projector (!), I volunteered to help, and took my place in the booth. Because these were olden days, kiddies, Mr. Colville and I had to maintain a lightly comical dialogue as he tried to signal subtly when to move to the next slide and I only sometimes picked up on the cues as I peered around the projector through the tiny window to ascertain his shadowy figure ‘way down below.

I was not, and am not, a fan of Colville’s work. He was charming in the lecture and I was honoured to assist him, but his art, I have found, is distinctly unsettling. Indeed, during the Q&A time, I asked him why he seemed never to depict the faces of his human subjects. Animals, perhaps, yes, but not people. (He does, in some work, paint faces, but very few, and mostly in profile.) He expressed surprise at the question and suggested that he really hadn’t thought about it. I found that answer immensely improbable (how can an artist not know that he is not painting faces on subject after subject?) and wondered instead at this enigmatic reply.

For Colville’s work has always struck me as threatening, the calm before the storm. I occasionally thought his style might suit a Stephen King novel: a completely quotidian situation, even absurdly ordinary, is about to turn nightmarish. What others have found peaceful and even celebratory of the quiet ways of Maritime life, I have sensed were tense with apprehension, maybe even misanthropy.

Yes, I’ll let the psychologists as well as the art critics among you sort that out, if you can be bothered. But there is no denying Colville’s craft: his extraordinary control of colour and shape, his patience, his eye for both detail and overall architecture, and his unflinching consideration of age. He lived a long, productive life, and I dare hope that his destiny is to reckon with colours, shapes, and faces of an entirely new and transcendent order.

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