Too much of a good thing? The Art Gallery of Ontario’s new retrospective falls short of presenting Colville as Colville himself would have wanted.
Alex Colville’s paintings are both masterful studies in form and composition, and sublime windows into alternate, though not unfamiliar, lives and experiences. They are felt most strongly in intimate and uncluttered settings, something the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Colville retrospective fails to provide.
Opening this Saturday, August 23rd, the AGO’s exhibition spans the entirety of the Canadian painter’s career, which, having continued almost until Colville’s death at 92, is vast. Over 100 paintings are included, many of which have never been shown publicly, as well as several pieces created by contemporary artists in response to Colville’s work.
For an artist whose legacy seems parallel his work itself –both vast and elusive, understated, and esoteric – creating a cohesive representation of Colville’s career was undoubtedly no easy task. The exhibition’s design has been given careful consideration, but, while it does present a neatly-packaged vision of the artist, is ultimately too linear, formulaic and contradictory to Colville’s own thoughts about his paintings.
This fate is all too likely when curating a retrospective, especially of those artists such as Colville who produced substantial bodies of work, where the artwork requires a “simplifying” in order to encapsulate an entire career. Rather than focusing on the conceptual aspects of his paintings, the AGO presents Colville’s work as a catalogue of thematics and visual content, going so far as to divide the crowded gallery rooms by subject matter and consequently over-explaining artworks that are best appreciated when given space to breathe.
This museological approach to curation is so transparent in the AGO’s execution that walking through the exhibition feels like reading an encyclopedia – fact driven, one-sided, and disappointing, if not insulting, for the viewer who looks to art galleries as places of exploration, not explanation.
Colville himself believed that his work, for it’s depth of experience and intimacy, can’t be fully appreciated through a momentary glance. Unfortunately, the sheer number of over-explained artworks and the exhibition’s winding layout become fatiguing, and eventually giving cursory glances becomes too easy.
The paintings are resigned to studies of form and colour – still enjoyable, but one can’t help but feel that something within them has been suppressed. Despite the AGO having missed this mark, and contradicted Colville himself, the exhibition still has its merits.
By instituting this rigid framework, the AGO has inadvertently created a near-perfect opportunity to actively, and defiantly, engage with the artwork. Instead of walking the exhibition from beginning to end, visit the rooms haphazardly. Avoid reading the didactics and wall texts, spend five minutes with one painting and skip over the surrounding others, and, if you feel so inclined at the end of your self-guided tour, compare your observations with the artist’s and curator’s explanations.
Colville’s work deserves to be much more than an interventionist tool, but as viewers – and equally important players in the art world – we can at least offer it the chance to speak for itself.
Read more about the AGO’s Alex Colville exhibit here.