Alex Colville: Paintings, Drawings and Prints 1994-2002 at the University of Toronto Art Centre (15 King's College Circle), to August 7. 416-978-1838. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Alex Colville, arguably canada's greatest living artist, has been patiently producing his own brand of enigmatic naturalism for the last 50 years. Now, a travelling retrospective of his work at the U of T Art Centre reveals his painstaking mastery. Colville's paintings are crafted over months with patience and control. It's impossible to find a neglected area in any painting's surface, a fact amply documented by the inclusion here of many sketches and studies. Colville's meticulous process produces a super-realism, a tranquil world where no detail has been overlooked or becomes smudged over by the hazards of casual viewing. It's this control that gives Colville's paintings their potent sheen of unreality. You sense that the figures going about their daily business of sitting, dressing, rowing or walking are part of a waking dream.
His work may deal with the unsettling mystery of the quotidian, but he never turns alienating. With unassuming grace, he stays comfortably rooted in the human. He also has a few surprises up his sleeve, such as his naked self-portrait, an unusual exercise for a man in his 70s.
But for all the thought and studied care, the paintings remain refreshingly devoid of posturing. If anything, Colville's touch is getting lighter with age. His painting of his elderly wife tilting her head back girlishly to catch the first snow is precise, but also tender. To see such moments captured with such assurance is a rare treat.