Animals play a key role in the art of Nova Scotia painter Alex Colville (1920–2013), often standing in as a counter to human figures. The animal is Other, present, seemingly ubiquitous in Colville’s imagery, but essentially unknowable. As his daughter, Ann Kitz, told curator Andrew Hunter, “He wasn’t sentimental about animals, but he thought that they were essentially good, and he didn’t think that people were inherently good.” Colville uses animals as a compositional pairing—such as in Dog and Groom, 1991—that forms an essential binary in his work: human/animal or, perhaps more accurately, culture/nature. For Colville, humans think, animals act, and in their juxtaposition something important about the world can be expressed. As Hunter notes, “Colville’s bond with animals (particularly the family dogs that appear in so many works) was genuine and consistently evident. He seemed to think both about and with them, to work toward understanding the world in tandem with them.”
For Colville, so influenced by existentialism and its restless pursuit for the meaning of human nature, animals provide a foil to further his philosophical engagement. As he stated early in his career: “The great task which North American artists have to perform is one of self-realization, but a self-realization much broader and deeper than the purely personal or subjective. The job thus involves answering such questions as, ‘Who are we? What are we like? What do we do?’” Colville posed these questions through the use of symbols: “I am suggesting that primeval myths may be of use to the modern painter.… What I have in mind is the use of material so old, so often used down through the ages, that it has become an integral part of human consciousness.”
Colville’s interest in animals can be tied to the fact that he was a thinker as much as a maker, and his sustained, rigorous approach to creating images is a remarkable legacy. His abiding interest in the nature of being led him to examine the everyday facts of existence. His subject matter is, almost exclusively, the daily life that surrounded him, whether that was in Sackville, Wolfville, or while he was on a sojourn in Santa Cruz or Berlin. For Colville, thinking deeply happens wherever you are, and happens best with familiar things. As art historian Martin Kemp notes, “He is a local painter in the sense that [painter John] Constable was local, creating art that has to draw nourishment from scenes known intimately in order to find a wider truth.”
In Colville’s depictions, simple binaries create complex images that resist easy summation. Humans and animals, men and women, humans and machines, the constructed world and the natural environment, are all put into play in his “fictions.” He begins with ideas, and uses familiar objects to express them. According to Colville, “My paintings begin as imaginary drawings, and then at a later point in their development, I make some drawings from life, from reality. It’s interesting that the original conception of one of my paintings, or my prints, always emerges out of my head, rather than from something specifically seen. It’s a sort of conglomeration of experience and observation.”
This Essay is excerpted from Alex Colville: Life & Work by Ray Cronin.