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Exhibition on painter Alex Colville set to launch at Art Gallery of Ontario

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TORONTO - Master painter Alex Colville is remembered for his ability to immortalize the seemingly mundane moments of everyday life, often with tense and haunting undertones.

The Art Gallery of Ontario is honouring his vast body of work with an exhibition tagged as the most comprehensive Colville retrospective to date.

The realist-style painter died in July 2013 at age 92, leaving behind a sweeping artistic legacy that includes famous paintings such as "Horse and Train" and "Target Pistol and Man."

The Toronto exhibition, which touts more than 100 pieces contributed by museums and private collections, includes some paintings that have never been shown publicly.

Canadian art curator Andrew Hunter said though the show follows Colville's death, the exhibition is not a memorial.

"We really did want to engage him as a significant artist whose work is still deeply relevant," Hunter said. "He was incredibly good at distilling into a single image, often stripped down to the most basic elements, a powerful statement about what it meant to be in the world at this time."

The exhibition, which opens Saturday, pairs Colville's work with contemporary pieces from popular culture, including films, music and even a comic book. The goal is to offer viewers a chance to reflect on Colville's career, while linking his work to filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and writers including Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, Hunter said.

Colville was born in Toronto in 1920 and moved to Amherst, N.S., as a young boy. He went on to study fine arts at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., before moving to Wolfville, N.S., a university town in the Annapolis Valley, where he lived until his death.

His body of work spanned decades, with varied sources of inspiration — from his Maritime roots to his experiences as an official war artist in the Second World War, a role that included depictions of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany.

He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982 and won a Governor General's Visual and Media Arts Award in 2003.

Hunter said one of the remarkable aspects of Colville’s work was his ability to paint in an “in-between space.” “Colville’s work exists in a no man’s land, but it’s also familiar,” he said, adding that this allows for both a sense of individual attachment and universal appeal.

Jesse Wente, director of film programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, said the exhibition offers a new window into the work of an artist who has been "omnipresent" in Canadian culture.

"As much as it is a show about a Canadian painter, the connections to movies are really intriguing," he said, adding that Colville's work is comparable to individual frames of a movie, capturing one moment in a longer narrative.

Many artists have been directly influenced by Colville's work, including filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who incorporated four paintings into his classic horror movie "The Shining," he said.

Wente noted that Colville's paintings often convey a sense of "unease or discomfort," but his work is also "distinctly Canadian somehow."

The exhibition coincides with the release of a new book dubbed "Colville," which includes reproductions of 100 of his paintings.

Tim Hecker, an electronic composer based in Montreal, was one of the contemporary artists to contribute to the exhibition. He described Colville's work as pictorial realism and called the artist an "outlier" in an era when many artists were obsessed with pop art.

Hecker created an aural echo of Colville’s work, using overhead pendulum speakers in a “sonic mood room,” which visitors must pass through during the exhibition.

It acts as a "respite during the journey of all these images," he said. "I just want it to be something that's experiential and speaks for itself."

Colville’s daughter Ann Kitz, who was involved with creating the exhibition, said she finds the new approach to her father’s work “refreshing.” “His paintings will endure and they will always speak for themselves,” she said.

The Alex Colville exhibition runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Jan. 4. Afterward the show will travel to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

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