An Alex Colville painting is creepy. Not overtly creepy, in the gruesome manner that makes the skin crawl, but in the eerie and ominous way that makes the mind crawl.
In a new show, Alex Colville Return: Paintings, Drawings and Prints 1994-2002, that is precisely the feeling that curator Tom Smart will attempt to explore.
"Every time I look at one of his paintings, it is always the same experience," Smart says. "It's that unsettling, strange feeling. Every time I look at one of his paintings, I felt it was looking back at me. There is an absence that is undefined."
At the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until Nov. 30, the exhibition is scheduled for a selective tour of the country with stops in New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Containing more than 60 pieces, it focuses on Colville's work of the past decade and earlier works from the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
The first solo show by Colville at the AGNS offers paintings, recent serigraphs and preparatory drawings and studies for many of the works included in the show. Much of the work is privately owned and has never been displayed.
Smart, director of museum programs at the Frick Museum in Pittsburgh and former curator of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, has also authored an accompanying full-colour hardcover book, Alex Colville Return (Goose Lane Editions) that aims to place the items in the context of Colville's body of work by exploring four main themes: doubling, longing, ordering and mortality.
These themes define his work, from his war pieces to his current paintings in this exhibition. The collection Smart has put together attempts to explore the relationship between Colville's early efforts and his work of the past 10 years as well as the relationship between his art and the unspoken truths (all the creepiness, if you will) within.
Colville, long viewed as prim and proper but never reserved, is expansive, eager to talk about the show, his work habits and from where the ideas flow.
Clad in a pink dress shirt and sand-coloured moleskin pants, he is relaxed in the living room of his tidy, well-appointed house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Wolfville, a pretty university town in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. His wife Rhoda's father built the house, and they have lived there since 1973. He has a studio in the backyard, which is lush with trees and flowers and well-tended shrubs.
Colville says he is pleased with the show, the work that Smart has pulled together and the accompanying book. Colville gave Smart the freedom to interpret the work and respected the finished product.
"Once my work goes out I don't really care where it comes down," he says, the sentence carrying more good nature than the words themselves convey.
The 82-year-old, regarded as one of Canada's most popular artists, has had a good year and it shows.
Earlier this year he was honoured with, some might say finally, the fourth annual Governor-General's Visual and Media Arts Award for his lifetime achievement, which comes with a $15,000 prize.
After years of his work being dismissed by critics and curators who said it was passé and too popular, he felt vindicated.
"I really did," he says with a laugh. "At last you're given a kind of official vote of confidence that your work has some kind of virtue. This was not a widely held opinion in Canada. It's because I've never been associated with any kind of artist's group. In fact I find the idea deeply distasteful.
"I don't much like the company of other artists. I don't want to spend a lot of time with other artists. I don't know why. I don't like working side by side with other people. I don't like going around to see what other people are doing. To me, the whole idea of the Group of Seven is absurd."
Early in his career, Colville worked as a war artist, documenting the grisly hardship of life and death during the Second World War. "I approached the war work the way I would approach a case if I were a court reporter for a newspaper," he says. "I was documenting events as they happened."
His often nonchalant response to the horrors of the Holocaust was his way of imposing order, Smart says, and the feeling was carried through into his paintings of more domestic scenes: man, dog and boat, or a woman lying on the grass. They are orderly but each image leaves the observer unsettled.
"Every painting was a way of coming to terms with that experience," Smart says. "He was taking something horrific, absorbing it and transforming it into something positive. He's trying to come to terms with absolute disorder and the idea that things can change in a heartbeat. Civilization is very fragile."
Colville says: "It is hard to know where ideas come from. Every person has occupations. It's always something that has never happened. While it may arise out of some concurrence of events, I am not recording an event. I'm inventing an event. And you have to consider, what will the event be? Who will be in it? What will be happening?"
He describes himself as a slow worker, comparing himself to a writer of short stories, thinking of two or three ideas a year, rather than a novelist, who works out one major idea every year or even two. But over the years, even since the war, his themes have not changed.
Colville, although he divides his life into slots of time, has not had artistic periods. Over the course of his life, the imagery has not changed. The experience is always one of strangeness, a presence or an absence. But even though he is not reinventing himself, the work does not come easier.
"It takes me a long time to get things done," Colville says. "Most artists are more prolific."
He admires American painter Edward Hopper, who always said that the most difficult time for him was once he had finished a painting. Colville relates to this.
"There is a desire for a person working in the arts to produce," he says. "If you're not doing something, then something's wrong or you're out of it. That period when I'm hunting for something or waiting for something to hit has a somewhat anxious nature."
Colville, who has napped between 1 and 2 p.m. every day for the past 15 years, typically spends three or four hours a day at the drawing board or the easel in his backyard studio. If he wakes in the middle of the night, he is often thinking of ideas, sometimes concrete but often abstract, for paintings.
"It's pretty hard to convince people you are working then," he says. "But whether I realize it or not, this is part of my work. It doesn't look like work, but it is in a sense."
He is currently working on a painting, but will only say that it is "going along all right."
It is difficult to imagine a more relaxing lifestyle than the one Colville lives. His home and his yard are as orderly as he is trying to make a scene in a picture. But there are hints of the unsettled in the things that he says.
Colville has never been tempted to leave Nova Scotia, despite being offered several jobs, teaching at a private high school on Park Avenue in New York, and also at the University of Toronto.
"It's easy to shut things out here," he says, and then in perfect character quotes from the 1932 film Grand Hotel the famous Greta Garbo line: "I want to be alone."
He is only half-joking.
Alex Colville Return continues at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax until Nov. 30. It then travels to Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton (Dec. 20 - Feb. 29, 2004); Ontario's Museum London (March 21 - May 9); University of Toronto Art Centre (June 20 - Aug. 8); Edmonton Art Gallery (Aug. 27 - Oct. 17); and Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon (Nov. 9 - Jan. 9, 2005).