BELL BUOY AND CORMORANT
ink and acrylic on paper
9.25 ins x 11.5 ins; 23.5 cms x 29.2 cms
The soothing impression left by a cursory glance at a work by Alex Colville (1920-2013) contradicts the abundance of complexity that lies just beneath an ordered surface. His Bell Buoy and Cormorant typifies this paradox. It is a simple enough composition that relies on a classic ratio of sky to sea, and two motifs to suggest perspective and scale. However, like many Colville compositions there is more here than meets the eye. In his monograph Alex Colville, Return, Tom Smart notes the importance of "ordering" to the artist and remarks on Colville's keen awareness that everything that is typically relied upon can be upended, abruptly. This may account for the tension that one feels in much of Colville's work which subverts the quotidian into something unknowable: what is more unsettling than something familiar that isn't what it purports to be.
Here, the orderliness of the composition contrasts with what Smart calls a "vast unknowable and unmappable realm" - the Atlantic ocean. It is a vastness we can only endure, when we feel we control it by marking out dangers - shoals or shipwrecks - or marking escape routes, such as the entrance to channels that take us home, with signposts like the bellbuoy shown here. The cormorant by contrast needs no such markers to find its way and unlike us is comfortable in the air and underwater. Cormorants are excellent divers and are able to propel themselves under water as they hunt for food. In this composition, Colville emphasizes this shore bird's dual nature by placing his cormorant under the horizon line as though underwater - the ocean is a foil to its silhouette.
Colville relied on drawing to organize his ideas and lot 42 is an example of an original work on paper produced by the artist for the serigraph, lot 43. The initial conception has been modified (note how the artist has decided to reduce the ratio of sky to ocean) for the final print image. Colville has compressed the sky and adjusted the aspect ratio to produce a panorama that emphasizes the ocean's great breadth.
Tom Smart, Alex Colville, Return, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 2003, page 54 and page 58 for the silkscreen, Bell Buoy and Cormorant, reproduced in colour.
Collection of the artist
Private Collection, Montreal