Last Friday I made my way to Toronto. A handful of times a year I venture in to see what is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I was especially looking forward to its current exhibit on Alex Colville. For those unfamiliar with Canadian artists, Colville has been called one of our most influential. It isn’t easy to describe his art. His is a style that might be called realistic; some call it hyperreal, but that doesn’t quite catch it. You often hear the words “eerie” or “menacing” attached to his art. His style is dramatic, exploring the everyday in an uncanny way. He regularly introduces some unresolved narrative twist in an image, as if we are given a frame from a film spool – isolated and so bearing the burden of telling the whole story all on its own. The viewer is left wondering what the next frame will be. Colville’s art invite us to reflect on the phenomenon of searching for the stories needed to make sense of our experiences. Humans, it seems, are people attuned to stories, and are often on the lookout for occasions to unleash the imagination. But back to the story at hand!
I generally take the train for these trips, and so immediately enter a different world. I am neither in control nor accessible and so find the journey from home to the big city and back to be a kind of voyage deeper into the self. By the time I am at the gallery, I am in a different space and open to what might otherwise escape me.
I did not know that Colville, for instance, was a rabid fan of animals. I recall that animals often fit into his work, but I was not aware of his thought behind the images that I knew so well. At the gallery there were some interesting clips from a National Film Board interview of him some years ago, in which he spoke of animals as those not tainted by the many vices that mark being human. Their appearance in his paintings, then, strikes me as an especially interesting comment on our responsibility to attend to innocence. His work draws out the way in which animals invite us to see the world differently, and so draws us deeper into those residual moments of openness to the earth that paradoxically result in both joy and sorrow.
Colville points us to both our interest in the storied character of our existence as well as our sometimes muted yet never obliterated fascination with a more instinctive path of life. In the end, he invites us into a different world; a world where intuition matters as much as measurement, and passion as much as plans. Colville certainly cracks open a vantage point from which to witness a different way of being in the world – for those with eyes to see. May his tribe increase.