ALEX & ALMA: Alex Colville Retrospective closing this weekend in Toronto & Alma Duncan next weekend in Ottawa

Alex Colville was never an artist I considered as an interest. The experience of viewing the Art Gallery of Ontario’s current retrospective of his work left me considering otherwise.

Alma Duncan was never an artist I even knew to consider but her painting Young Black Girl (1940) is one of my favourites in the AGO’s collection. I had no knowledge of Alma at the time but I was drawn to the demure painting that used to hang in the round room to the right of the Old Masters Collection along with a Picasso from his Blue Period, and a pulsating Kees van Dongen. The room held a rotation of portraits and this enigmatic and somber piece made me return again and again.

Now the painting hangs at the Ottawa Art Gallery for one more week. It is positioned on the wall that intersects Alma’s bold self-portraits that greet me with a commanding series of stares.

There are many ways to conceptually enter into both the Alma and Alex exhibits but my pathway into understanding their work more deeply is through the relationships that they each present.

ALMA DUNCAN: The relationship one has with oneself. 

Alma’s portraits of herself are entirely different than my introduction to her work through her subject of the black girl who sits slightly askew and closed off from the viewer. In each painting Alma positions herself squarely, looking beyond the frame to her audience. It’s as if she is daring those who might question her authority as an artist. She began painting at a time when the art world offered little opportunity for female intervention into male dominated spaces. Even as she paints her young self with braids bound at their ends with red bows (Self-Portrait with Braids, 1940) there is a clear message she sends as she stands affirming her right to participate. She paints herself wearing a pair of trousers instead of a skirt. When I encounter this row of paintings with such a strong female presence my thought is that I am disappointed that it took this long for me to find her.

In the main room, behind one dividing wall, are her renderings of mines and the machinery of industry from her time spent documenting a developing Canada focused on trade and resources; on the other side abstracted sketches of grass and landscapes softened with snow. We can see how far she travelled in her journey to explore her visual language but its when I enter the second room and experience the blood red wall upon which her Woman Series (1965) is hung that I have a longing accompanied by an intense regret that my younger self didn’t experience these at an earlier moment in my own odyssey.

I would have loved to have experienced her boldness in my youth when looking for creative and conceptual heros sheros. The clean cut demarcation between the black and the white is not set in opposition to each other but rather as a compliment from one to the other.

They are magnificent.

As I come closer I sense a movement in the shimmering of the strokes. It reminds me of the shadowy depictions of the Shroud of Turin also known as the Shroud of Christ. But this analogy is not quite right. Rather than a covering used for the dead I realize it reminds me more of a vibrating sonogram where you can detect a pulse, a heart beat, a life. This is why I find them so magnetic because as I walk towards a particulate one that draws me close I see the defining outline of a woman’s torso reflected upon itself emerging from the inky deep. Although she moves from realism in her early work to this period of experimentation with abstraction in the 60s the strength and intensity of that young woman with the braids and red bows is the anchoring attribute we find repeated here.

Alma’s work may visually change, flux and bend but the explorative relationship she has with herself as a female artist is what moves me. It’s why I find myself coming back to this newly discovered piece over and over again not wanting to say good-bye.

ALEX COLVILLE: The relationship one has with their lover and life partner.

When I am at the Alex Colville show its also a female relationship that grounds me into the exhibit. I make a few laps around the rooms, weaving in and out of the crowd, to finally sit down somewhere mid-point and watch a short film. The video is narrated by Alex’s daughter Ann Kitz and in a few short minutes she poignantly shares with us the timeline of her parents lifetime of love – a 70 year excursion that ends the way it began – together. Alex died just weeks after his wife’s passing.

Exploration by going deep instead of wide.  

After experiencing World War II in his role as a war artist and documenting the liberation at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp it seemed like his marriage, which took place right before he left for war, became the stabilizing factor upon which he was able to build a career alongside raising a healthy family. The partnership with his wife, Rhoda, also an artist, gave him a solid foundation after experiencing the uprooting tension of conflict.

It was through this relationship Alex was able to arrive at both his signature technique and his recognizable aesthetic. Of the painting Nude and Dummy (1950) seen below he reflects that this was when he accomplished what he called his “first good painting.” From this piece we are able to see what is about to come down the road.

His visual journey doesn’t traverse the same distance as Alma’s trajectories. His way of rendering his compositions remains uniform throughout his career. He doesn’t become driven to aesthetic extremes; his loyalty to his signature style allows a deeper exploration into the psychological subtleties of the human condition. Alex’s work was about looking and then re-looking at a location or a person you know so well to find both the consistencies and the anomalies that open up a contemplative space.  He was quoted as saying that “only by living in a little place for a long time can one build up a sort of extensive body of complex knowledge and understanding of what goes on.”

Alex is known for his compositions that convey foreboding messages of something disruptive beyond the horizon but in seeing many of the his works based on Rhoda there is also an undeniably playful spirit that comes through these images of this woman, his wife. We see her at leisure with the figure we can interpret as Alex in the background close enough to be at her call but far enough as to not disturb her relaxation; we see her with her pets and her children and playing the piano while her aging husband sits close by. Over their lifetime Alex portrays her nude and exposed but accessible in her humanness, flaws not banished for the sake of the artist reflecting a perfected muse. She is real and charming, a crisp outline of paint separates her from the background but because we never fully see her face this woman still manages to maintain complexity surrounded by mystery.

Her head is lost inside of a canoe that she portages to another place; she stands with acceptance, a body shaped by age, in front of the old grandfather clock in their home. The image I come to love the most is of Rhoda defiantly naked and flipping the perspective of the world upside down, the cat as a casual witness. I feel it illustrates the adoration Alex had for this woman, at once his muse and the mother of his children. I can sense a chuckle from him and hear laughter from her as she gingerly makes her way down to plant her feet back on the ground. Headstand (1982) becomes the image that I end up visiting again and gain and the one final time to say farewell as the show closes its doors.

Thanks to the AGO & the OAG for providing an opportunity to view the life and work of two important Canadian artists.

Alex Colville closes today Sunday, January 4 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
Alma: The Life and Art of Alma Duncan (1917 – 2004) closes Sunday, January 11 at the Ottawa Art Gallery, Ottawa.

All above images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.