Alex Colville’s paintings scare me but that is a good thing
Alex Colville was a very fine and important war artist. Back when TV and the internet were not huge aspects of our culture, art was used to find meaning in the act of war. His work that was made after he came home and settled on the east coast still seemed to deal with war. Its internal logic and existential suggestiveness exposed someone who had been changed by trauma. Today the trauma of war, of loss on an unimaginable scale is interpreted and defined by the media; reaction now being the most prevalent way of dealing with war and it seems the militarization of our culture through video games, fashion, movies and military persons as celebrities is a fait de complete. I don’t have a well thought out opinion on any of this, but the passing of Colville has made it seem like an era is truly over.
It seems like we need to have everything explained to us today. I read many articles on Colville’s death and a lot of them highlighted how his work was made through geometry and mathematics. If you go back in time however and read articles about his work while he was alive and exhibiting, critics are far more fascinated with his connection to his experiences as a war artist. He was not a critical darling either, as he stayed far away from the meritocracy of Canadian art. He lacked the overtly gregariousness and media savvy personality that someone like Harold Town exhibited. I think also that his work was regarded with suspicion because he was successful. Not many Canadian artists live to have their work valued over $100,000.00 in their lifetime.
I don’t know how I feel about Colville’s work exactly but I don’t need it explained to me because it is my emotional reaction to his work that satisfies. His painting of the horse wildly running toward you from an austere church makes me feel like screaming for some reason. I don’t want to know why, I just know that a work of art makes me want to scream. It is kind of like how I feel about Alice Munro’s writing. I have nightmares when I read her work; it scares me to death. I think it might have to do with the space in her work or the decisions her lonely, desperate women make or both. Both of these artists are not my ‘go to’, favourite feelin’, and inspirational influences. Being terrified isn’t the way I want to feel before I head to my studio to do my own work however that they can elicit such a visceral response from me makes me reckon with them.
It would seem to me that anyone who experienced the opening of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at age twenty-four and had some talent as an artist would be able to, if they wanted and committed to it, create work that haunts. We have young people today who experience all sorts of harrowing acts of war throughout the Middle East and Africa. We could encourage painters to make work based on such experiences but our lust for new media makes this very, very rare. So, Alex Colville takes with him to his grave a career that began with one of the titanic events of civilization and his modest attempts at interpretation, a career that may not be possible to have anymore.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not suggesting we line up a bunch of painters and send them to Darfur so that they can create great art. I think the era of artists interpreting an obsession, or might I suggest fetish we humans have for killing each other in grand numbers has come to an end. We rely on first-hand accounts now; Instagram, Twitter and macho journos who embed themselves with units scampering and avoiding drones all over the place. Is this a better way to understanding war and trauma? I really don’t know. Art had its turn I guess and we’re still killing each other…
All I know is that media imagery from these scenes of devastation has never made me want to scream; it only depresses and rekindles cynicism I try to keep at bay. There is something about the symbolism of that horse and church and its chaotic energy tightly controlled that makes me feel horror and ultimately compassion because I am not being told how to see or feel; I just do. No explanation necessary.
Pic from Montreal Museum of Fine Arts