Existential Art: A Brief Look at the Pacific by Alex Colville


Peaceful, one of Colville’s best-known works, challenges viewers to be curious and to draw their own meaning from this intricate work of art

I first discovered Alex Colville’s work in an introductory art history class during my second year at Concordia. Our teacher made us observe several works of the Canadian artist, and try to decipher their meaning.

Colville was primarily concerned with realism, drawing many of his work from his life in the Maritimes, as well as his experience in WWII service. Although Colville has quite a few remarkable paintings, there is one that has marked me since I saw it for the first time: Peaceful (1967).

This work represents a man leaning against a wall as he gazes absently at a still body of water. However, that won’t be the first thing viewers will notice. Behind the man rests a pistol on a table, its barrel tilted towards the viewer. Although Colville’s work often explores themes such as the use of power, post-war anxiety, and morality, coupled with his interest in French existentialism, it seems the artist would prefer his audiences to tries to interpret what Peaceful means to them.

In several of his paintings, Colville presents a strangely serene landscape, where he then juxtaposes it with a chaotic subject. His pieces, in particular Peaceful, leave us with questions that are uncomfortable to face: What is the man contemplating in the painting? Why is the gun pointed at the audience? Will man end up using it?

Her work appeals to us and instead of providing clear answers and satisfying our desire for more vibrant, serotonin-boosting pieces, these paintings demand that we be curious. They expect us to dig a little deeper and get into the minds of the topics Colville has worked on so carefully.

When viewers are unable to decide on a story and understand a topic’s motivations, they can walk away uncomfortable. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Art that gets us thinking, especially pieces that get us thinking about existential questions that we can try to avoid, might help us see the world a little differently. Of course, it can be dark trying to make sense of a painting like Peaceful, but our own interpretations of a piece often say a lot more about how we perceive our society and ourselves, rather than the artist’s direct intentions.

In a world where a lot of things tend to move at breakneck speed, there is nothing wrong with taking the time to engage in a complex work that requires careful introspection on the part of its observer. You might even learn something new about yourself in the process.

Visuals courtesy of Taylor Reddam


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