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Q&A: AGO curator Andrew Hunter on Alex Colville’s literary connections


Alex Colville, “Horse and Train” (1954). Glazed oil on hardboard, Art Gallery of Hamilton.

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s masterful retrospective exhibition of Alex Colville’s paintings may surprise visitors with its literary undertones.

The exhibition features all of Colville’s most iconic works, including “Horse and Train” (1953) and “To Prince Edward Island” (1965), as well as thematic pairings with works from other artists, including the Coen Brothers, Sarah Polley, Wes Anderson, Alice Munro, Ann-Marie MacDonald, and cartoonist Dave Collier, who produced a comic for the show.

A page from Dave Collier's comic book, Colville Comics

A page from Dave Collier’s Colville comic book

Accompanying the exhibition is an art book, co-published by the AGO and Goose Lane Editions. Written and edited by Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s curator of Canadian Art, Colville features more than 100 works by the artist, as well as photos and essays.

Q&Q spoke to Hunter about the book and Colville’s literary connections.

How did writing the Colville book differ from writing for the exhibition? I see it as it a different opportunity to talk about the artist. I always have a sense of where I’m heading, but it emerges through the writing and I follow where it leads. It’s a bit like Colville: you never know what’s around the corner. In the book, things just emerge. I didn’t plan on quoting the Talking Heads extensively but then these phrases just kept coming up: “You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”

I think these are the sorts of philosophical questions that Colville thought about.

Alex Colville, "Couple on Beach" (1957). Casein tempera on masonite, National Gallery of Canada

Alex Colville, “Couple on Beach” (1957). Casein tempera on masonite, National Gallery of Canada

How do the connections with other artists play a role in the show? Colville was absolutely of the communities he lived in – it impacted who he was and how he saw the world, but he was also really conscious of what was going on globally. He was a voracious reader, he loved film. He was in a constant dialogue with what was going on around him.

For instance, there is the connection to the Coen brothers, which is mapped out through the book, the show, and the website. It’s not saying that the Coens looked at Colville before making No Country for Old Men, but it’s part of the milieu: these are the ideas that were floating around, that artists at that particular time in the world were thinking about. Colville was deeply conscious of that.

How did Ann-Marie MacDonald get involved? We were thinking of writers because Alex read a lot and was interested in fiction and authors like Alice Munro. (There’s a brief clip of Alice in the show talking about remarkable things happening in unremarkable places.) We could have brought Ann-Marie MacDonald into any section of the show and it would have been brilliant, but we positioned her around the presence of animals in the work. She talks about crows and animals as sentient beings, and reflects on how Colville sees animals.

Alex Colville, “Woman and Terrier” (1963). Acrylic polymer emulsion on hardboard, private collection

Alex Colville, “Woman and Terrier” (1963). Acrylic polymer emulsion on hardboard, private collection

Colville's "Elm Tree at Horton Landing" appeared on the cover of Alice Munro's "The Progress of Love"

Colville’s “Elm Tree at Horton Landing” appeared on the cover of Alice Munro’s story collection “The Progress of Love”

Why do you think Colville’s work is still relevant? We’re still in a Colvillian moment. You see it in the fascination with current television shows and film with this stripped-down austerity, and in the interest in Scandinavian crime novels and film, and contemporary British cinema with filmmakers like Steve McQueen. It’s so dark and minimal.