Alex Colville, Dog, Boy, and St. John River, 1958, oil and synthetic resin on Masonite, 61 x 82.6
cm, Museum London, Ontario.
My estrangement from contemporary Canadian art, which occurred after the Kurelek episode, was arrested by seeing the work of Alex Colville at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Perhaps oddly, it was not the famous Horse and Train (1954,) but rather a mechanical reproduction of Dog, Boy, and St. John River (1958) which drew my attention. The beauty and tranquility of the peaceful scene enthralled me. Yes, the boy carries a gun, but that did not detract from the painting for me. He would appear to be duck hunting – shooting for the pot. Looking at the picture now, I love the labrador’s bum and can feel it’s back and forth movement, just like in the opening shots of Downton Abbey. You can sense the rhythm of the tail beating time to the footsteps of the two as they approach the water’s edge. Colville has found that moment before dawn when the sun has not yet risen but the sky is glowing in the east and reflecting that glow on the water. It is a moment of transcendence.
So imagine my surprise when I heard that Stanley Kubrick used Dog, Boy, and St. John River as set dressing in The Shining (1980.) Not just in any room in the Overlook Hotel, but in room 237 specifically. Indeed, fans of Kubrick and the film have analyzed that usage intensely. It has been noted for example, that the painting, as viewed in the film, is seen as though reflected in a mirror. The mirror image figure is interpreted as being the boy Danny’s doppelgänger or double – a figure thought to be a bad omen of future events. In addition, the boy in the image is carrying a weapon, which is seen as foreshadowing the boy Danny with a knife later in the film. (Matt Marrone, October 6, 2014, in Unwinnable Weekly Issue Seventeen. unwinnable.com › tag › stanley-kubrick) At that point, I kind of lost the thread, but there is a lot more, complete with conspiracy theories and other far shores.
This investigation gave me a pause and caused me to do some research to investigate Colville’s art to see if it was odd that a painting, which to me was so entrancing, was to others disturbing or banal. What I found was that there is a wide variety of interpretations you can take from Colville’s work. As Charlie Hill puts it, Colville’s art encompasses “a very accessible subject matter but one that also just raises questions,” (Charlie Hill interviewed by Jill Mahoney in the Globe and Mail, July 17, 2013.) The accessible subject matter often encompasses everyday moments and events in a middle class family in maritime Canada. Or, that could be interpreted as moments or events that could occur in the lives of a family. There are also, of course, the surrealistic images that Colville is well known for, such as Nude and Dummy (1950) and Horse and Train (1954.) With this spread, you can find John Bentley Mays (Globe and Mail, 1983) critiquing Colville for creating kitchy “mediocre works,” with “obsessive” care, while other critics find the atmosphere in the works one of foreboding and anxiety, and the subject matter too surreal. There is a wide range of responses. The works have awide appeal and widely conflicting views about them.
Dog, Boy, and St. John River has, unusually for Colville, a jewel toned colour scheme: the rich, deep greens and blues and topaz are more real world than Colville’s usual paler bleached out palette. This rich colour scheme grounds the work into the natural world, giving it the appearance of realism. Structurally, the figures of the dog and boy too, seem rooted to the land, compared with Colville’s often floating figures, whose feet never seem to touch the ground. Although Colville’s figure placement was worked out to conform to a classically based geometric calculation, somehow the figures so often look as though they are collaged on the surface, without relation to the ground surface of the image. In Dog, Boy, and St. John River, the colour scheme and figure placement in the painting give the picture the feeling of an actual, ordinary event. Or so it seems. Charlie Hill explains that “Colville’s art grows out of this social realism of the ’30s and ’40s and he continued to have that social consciousness. But not in a political way, [as] maybe an earlier generation did, but a real consciousness about humanity.” (Mahoney, Globe and Mail, July 17, 2013) Through this lens, the artist’s focus on depictions of family and home life indicates where he felt that the important things of life lay. Yet Colville called himself a “conceptual” as opposed to “perceptual” artist in that he conceived an idea for a picture rather than just perceiving a view and slapping it down. (Alex Colville, “My Experience as a Painter and Some General Views of Art.” Address given at New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, 1951. Reprinted in Helen J. Dow, The Art of Alex Colville, 203–08. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972.)
Colville’s pictures do not tell a story, but to the viewer they give a sense of a scene or film still of a story whose ongoing narrative is tantalizingly never divulged, but left open ended. Thus, Dog, Boy, and St. John River, for instance, is not a memory of something seen or a picture he set up with models. Rather it is a vision that Colville conceived in his mind and then set down in paint. As Ray Cronin puts it, “Colville’s pictures are not sequential narratives, though they often feel as if they are segments of a story, nor are they reasoned arguments. They are deeply conceptual: ideas made whole as self-contained images.” (Ray Cronin, Alex Colville: Life & Work, ebook, Art Canada Institute, 2017, 28)
Colville himself said, “In a sense the things I show are moments in which everything seems perfect and something is revealed.” (Cronin, Alex Colville: Life & Work, 49) The revelation in Dog, Boy, and St. John River for me has an ecstatic, poetic feel to it, evoking transcendent lyrics by Bruce Cockburn and James Taylor. It is a measure of Colville’s skill and vision that the range of responses to this and other of his art’s revelations can include everything from this to the cozily domestic and the nightmarishly horror filled.