Pacific, one of Colville’s most well known works, challenges viewers to be inquisitive and to derive their own meaning from this complex piece of art
I first encountered Alex Colville’s work in an introductory art history class during my second year at Concordia. Our professor had us observe several works from the Canadian artist, and try to decipher the meaning behind them.
Colville was primarily concerned with realism, deriving inspiration for many of his works from his life in the Maritimes, as well as his experience serving in the Second World War. Although Colville has quite a few noteworthy paintings, there’s one that has stuck with me ever since I first saw it: Pacific (1967).
This work features a man leaning against a wall as he vacantly stares out at a tranquil body of water. However, this won’t be the first thing that viewers notice. Behind the man rests a pistol on a table, its barrel angled towards the observer. Although Colville’s work often explores themes such as the use of power, postwar anxiety, and morality, coupled with his interest in French existentialism, it appears that the artist would prefer that his audience attempt to interpret what Pacific means to them.
In several of his paintings, Colville presents a landscape that is eerily serene, where he then juxtaposes it with a chaotic subject. His pieces, especially Pacific, leave us with questions that are uncomfortable to confront: what is the man in the painting contemplating? Why is the gun angled towards the audience? Will the man end up using it?
His work draws us in, and instead of providing clear-cut answers and satiating our desire for more vibrant, serotonin-boosting pieces, these paintings demand that we be inquisitive. They expect us to dig a bit deeper, and to get into the heads of the subjects that Colville so carefully crafted.
When viewers are unable to decide on a narrative and make sense of a subject’s motives, they may walk away feeling uneasy. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Art that gets us thinking, especially pieces that cause us to ponder existential questions we may try to avoid, might help us view the world a bit differently. Sure, it can be gloomy to try and make sense of a painting like Pacific, but our own interpretations of a piece often say a lot more about how we view our society and ourselves, rather than the direct intentions of the artist.
In a world where many things tend to move at breakneck speed, there’s nothing wrong with taking some time to engage with a complex work that requires careful introspection from its observer. You might even learn something new about yourself in the process.
Visuals courtesy of Taylor Reddam