Alex Colville: The Book of Hours by Mark Silverberg

Dec 1979 06 02 M REF 2 When visiting Inside the Collection make sure not to miss the Gallery’s back room, which contains (along with other great pieces) a series of 12 remarkable prints from one of Canada’s most important and iconic painters, Alex Colville.

Colville (1920-2013) was born in Toronto but spent most of his life in the Maritimes. He taught Fine Arts at Mount Allison University from 1948-63 until leaving to devote himself full time to painting and print-making. Colville’s work has been displayed internationally since the 1950s and he is the recipient of many of Canada’s highest honours and awards. He lived his last four decades in Wolfville, NS, from which he drew so many of his unique, personal, simultaneously common and uncommon images.

In The Book of Hours Colville set himself the task of creating a contemporary illuminated manuscript in the medieval tradition. One popular form was known as the “Labours of the Month” which depicted 12 scenes of work or leisure activities associated with particular months.

Colville’s Book of Hours updates and personalizes the medieval calendar by constructing 12 images that represent the artist’s unique take on the seasons. Instead of traditional scenes (of planting, ploughing, harvesting, feasting, etc.), Colville offers us mysterious and fragmentary narratives. They are odd moments, caught in time, which seem both familiar (September’s yellow school bus, January’s winter trees) and at the same time slightly unnerving. The scenes leave us hanging—like the ominous aircraft hovering over an unseen figure in June, or the lone police cruiser and lone crow on empty country roads in winter.

Almost all the figures in Colville’s prints have their backs turned to us (see February, June, July), their faces hidden (November), or their eyes closed (May) — as if each is protecting some unknowable secret.

Jan 1979 06 02 B REF 2Colville’s great talent was for drawing out the enigmatic, the uncertain, even, perhaps (and the perhaps is key) the potential for violence or danger—in everyday lives and scenes. What at first seem like homely domestic scenes, on closer inspection begin to feel slightly uncanny: Where is the seemingly naked woman entering the July water going? (does the downturned head and the hands held to the temples suggest this is something more than a summer swim?). What should we make of the shadowy sliver of a face watching (or is it stalking?) the unseeing February figure? And the man in the branches of January trees: is he climbing or falling? Or is he just trapped in this maze of unruly lines? And what about the nighttime birds (one thinks of Hitchcock or Poe)—October’s owl and December’s crow—trailing, pursuing, h(a)unting us?

In the recent Art Gallery of Ontario retrospective (August 2014-January 2015), the largest show of Colville’s work to date, curator of Canadian art Andrew Hunter highlights some of the elusive but vital connections between the painter and filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and the Coen Brothers who, like Colville, are experts at subtly gesturing towards the shadowy potential of the commonplace:
“Both filmmakers and artist produce undercurrents of fear, tension and the unknown, as they suggest the chance of everyday moments to tip towards calamity.”

Like Robert Frost’s poetry, which was misunderstood for years as a kind of guileless, homespun American wisdom, Alex Colville’s deceptively simple, domestic images hesitate with a darkness much closer to the bone of Canadian experience than we might care to know or admit. His Book of Hours is a great entryway into this common and uncommon world. And for those who want to explore further, CBU Gallery holds over 40 of Colville’s prints, one of the most complete collections of his silkscreens in one location.

Mark Silverberg is an Associate Professor of English in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Cape Breton University.

This blog originally appeared in the Cape Breton Post’s, Community Post.