There were many sides to artist Jack Chambers. He was a passionate defender of artists’ rights, an experimental filmmaker with an international reputation, and a painter who continually reinvented his language of expression. In a new exhibition of his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario you can explore each facet of this complex and fascinating artist by viewing his paintings and his films alongside painstakingly compiled archival material. We caught up with the show’s curator, Dennis Reid, to learn more about Jack Chambers and the exhibition.
The show is an incredibly comprehensive look at Chambers’ life and work. How long did it take to assemble, and what kind of challenges did you face?
This exhibition is primarily comprised of the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. A number of years ago the Gallery made the decision to collect key Canadian artists in depth and in breadth, and the idea was the AGO would be the place you came if you had an interest in researching these artists and understanding them better.
Along with that was the pursuit of the papers, the archives of each artist, and the commitment in every case to do a significant exhibition of the AGO collection of that work. Some of the precedents are Betty Goodwin, Paterson Ewen, Greg Curnoe and Michael Snow.
In the mid nineties, the AGO began talking to (Jack Chambers’) sons about a joint purchase donation. They decided they wanted to do something with the material, which had been sitting in a house up to that point. The AGO went out and raised some money from key supporters, the purchase of the works was made and then the donation of the papers. Part of this process was the commitment to do an exhibition with this material – the largest collection of Chambers’ work anywhere in the world.
We made the decision to include the archival material as an integral part of the exhibition, and to round things out we borrowed some works from private collectors – there are twelve loans in the exhibition altogether.
What is Jack Chambers’ place in Canada’s national consciousness, and why should he be viewed as an important Canadian artist?
I’m not sure it’s very clear at this point. That is one of the reasons it was so important to do an exhibition. There was a time back in the 1970s when Chambers had quite a high profile and his work was widely admired in Canada. He was also known internationally as an underground (personal) filmmaker in the late sixties and seventies, which was really the only reputation he had outside of Canada at that point.
The work hasn’t been out there that much. After his wife died his two sons were managing the estate and I think the decision was made at that point to not aggressively market the work. The last exhibition devoted to his work was in back in the eighties, so it’s been quite a while.
The Walrus, talking about Lunch, quoted you as saying that ‘all the show’s themes are in that painting.’ Can you tell us some more about the show’s themes and how they are represented in this work?
Lunch is a painting [thatChambers] never finished. He laboured at it from 1969 until his death in 1978. It depicts Chambers, his wife and his two boys at Sunday lunch. They’re sitting at the dining room table in a rather formal setting with two bottles of wine on the table, and there’s an incredible view out the window behind Jack and an Easter lily down in one corner. The flower gives a sense of the time of year and, I think, also brings a spiritual dimension to it, as does the way in which they sit around the table.
Jack would probably cringe to think of this but in a certain sense it evokes the last supper, and so that becomes very moving when you think that he knew that he was struggling for his life during these years.
He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1969 when he began this painting and he was told he had six months to live. He persisted against it and lived for another nine years, which is pretty incredible. This painting, though never finished, is in a certain sense the measure of that struggle.
You look out the window and there you are in North London, suburban London, Ontario. So there is that sense of place that is very strong. The whole idea of time is very apparent – although this is a moment that’s captured it’s also about dealing with change over a period of time. So there they all are – light, spirit, place,time and life.
But I would argue that all of the shows themes are probably present in all of the paintings. These were central issues for Chambers.
Chambers described the style of some of his paintings as perceptual realism – how would you define the term?
Although Jack wrote about perceptual realism I’m not sure the meaning of that term was ever crystal clear. My understanding (and I’ve thought about this for many years) is that the paintings he called the perceptual realist paintings were the ones like The 401 Towards London and Meadow, Lunch and the interior family scenes.
These are all based on photographs. He would take hundreds and hundreds of photographs of something and from that choose exactly the right one and have it blown up to about the size of a sheet of paper. Then he would mark it off in a grid and put that grid on the panel or canvas that he was working on. In about a year or two years usually he would have finished the painting.
He used perceptual realism, I believe, to describe his understanding that everything we know, that we can know, comes to us through our perception, through our eyes. It fascinated him – what is it that we see? And he realized that everything that we see is because of light, so that became a key element as well. Time comes into it as well, because what he was trying to capture was that “wow” moment – not necessarily of incredible beauty but a moment that is meaningful. A nice example is the story of how he painted The 401 Towards London.
He was off to a meeting in Toronto and drove out from London to the 401, over the overpass.. He happened to look up into his rear view mirror and saw this view along the highway that, with the light and everything else, was just one of those magical moments. He couldn’t do anything about it at that point and went on to Toronto for his meeting. But when he got back later that night and the next morning he went out to the spot with his camera. We think he spent probably the better part of a day running around and shooting from different ways trying to capture that moment. There’s a whole array of photographs from that area but he eventually found the one that brings back the feeling that he had when he saw the view in the mirror.
He abhorred having it compared to magic realism and to the photographic realism movement that was going on in the U.S. at that point. He felt his work was very different from that, much more serious, and so he persisted with this term.
What are some of the show highlights for you?
That’s like asking me which is my favourite child – I can’t say. I’m so pleased with the exhibition – one of the goals, because it’s thematically organized, was that each of the areas be clear. That you knew one of the areas was about light, you knew you were in the area about place. But at the same time we wanted to get the flow and the sight lines because some of the paintings are incredible from a distance. Jim Burke, our designer, did a brilliant job and it’s turned out exceptionally well.
I feel that this is an exhibition you could walk through in 15 or 20 minutes and have an incredible experience just by addressing the big pieces that are right there. Or, you could spend five days in there going through all the archival material, carefully chosen to relate to the works that are on the wall.
There are wonderful audio tapes to listen to, incredible screened images and then all day, every day we’re running his films in a screening room in the centre so you could spend hours just watching the films.
There’s an anecdote that Jack Chambers once knocked on Picasso’s door to ask him where he should study. Picasso recommended Barcelona but Chambers chose Madrid. Is there truth to this story?
The story is typical Jack and apparently true. When he went to Europe he didn’t know where he was going; he just knew he wanted to go to the source of what he called the “classical art tradition.” By that he meant the Old Masters and the drawing from the figure and that high level of craftsmanship. So he went by boat to Naples and on board the ship he met a couple from Austria. He tagged along with them and went to Austria and then made his way back through Europe. As he was passing through Southern France he saw the name of a village and thought, “isn’t that where Picasso lives?”
So he went to the village and was able to determine that yes, Monsieur Picasso lives in that house just there. So, Jack being Jack, he knocked on the door (one story is that he actually had to climb over the fence first) and Picasso himself answered.
Jack said, ‘where should I study art? I’ve come to Europe to study art and I want to be a great artist like you.’
Picasso apparently replied “Barcelona,” which is where he had studied. So off Jack went to Barcelona. But for some reason it didn’t stick and he slid on through, ending up at the Academy in Madrid. It was all kind of chance, in a funny way.
When he was enrolled in the Academy in Madrid, he had summers off,so he would travel around Spain or elsewhere in Europe. One summer he wanted to go to the UK and decided to write to Henry Moore, asking if he could use a studio assistant.
Moore wrote back and declined, but said that there was a gentleman just down the lane who could use a studio assistant. So Chambers spent the summer in the Midlands and ended up teaching art in an amateur school and doing commission portraits.
I had the pleasure of knowing him; he was an amazing person and entirely unpredictable. Greg Curnoe used to say that you never knew if he was joking or not. Sometimes he was dead serious and sometimes it was just a joke – I’m not sure if he even knew which was which sometimes.
Jack Chambers: Light, Spirit, Time, Place and Life is open at the AGO until May 13, 2012. For more information and to buy tickets please visit www.ago.net