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Living Room

Alex Colville
Living Room, 1999-2000
Acrylic on hardboard
41.8 × 58.5 cm
Purchased 2000

In both the themes he explores and the methods he employs, the Canadian painter Alex Colville could be described as a classical artist. His works, with their characteristic atmosphere of suspended time, are instantly recognizable. In his inimitable fashion, Colville expresses the angst triggered by the potential strangeness of the ordinary and the frightening unexpectedness of human life. In meticulously detailed and often obsessive descriptions of significant, drama-filled moments, the artist heightens the feelings of disquiet arising from our inability to halt time. The painfully-won victory of order over disorder and submerged violence is always precarious. In some works he achieves effects of great calm and serenity, but the effort is obviously considerable. His painting method involves the painstaking rendering, in tiny brushstrokes, of drawings that are based on classical systems of proportion. Living Room, one of his most recent works, marks something of a shift in direction, for here light is exploited in a completely new way: instead of restricting light effects to within the different shadowless forms, as he usually does, Colville has employed them across the whole surface of the painting. A gradual transition from dark to light carries the eye towards the musician absorbed in her art and simultaneously creates a powerful symbolism. The tremendous sense of silence that envelops the painting seems to encourage that meditative mood conducive to the interpretation and appreciation of music.

The male figure, caught in the shadow, could be the artist himself, although he seems older and somehow more vulnerable; the brilliantly-lit pianist resembles Colville's wife Rhoda. Curled up on the carpet between them is a dog very much like Min, a faithful companion who recently died. The gloomy atmosphere of the left side of the painting contrasts with the warm, redeeming light on the right. Art seems to be presented as a protection against mortality: Ars longa vita brevis - life is brief but art endures. Confronted with the artist's aged self-portrait, the viewer senses something sinister; once again Colville's painting conveys emotions that are complex and hard to express, but quintessentially human. Herein lies the power of his art: he counters the transience of life - a phenomenon that troubles him deeply - with art. Operating in the metaphorical mode, he plays on our feelings of insecurity about our own destinies and those of our loved ones. Only one thing is certain: the end will come. Until then, all is possible, for the day and the hour are unknown.