A rare opportunity to see iconic works from the visionary and mischievous artist Jack Chambers at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
If you are from southern Ontario, or if you have lived here for a while and you notice such things, you know that there is a soft, moist, tactile quality to the air and the light here, especially on ordinary cloudy days, winter mornings, and muggy summer afternoons in the countryside.Yet, if we are asked to name a painter who captured that light, whose art expresses the essential qualities, the actual felt experience of the light here in southern Ontario, there is only one artist who ever really nailed it: Jack Chambers.
The Chambers retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), which will be on exhibit until May 13, is a rare opportunity to see many of Jack Chambers’ most iconic works, along with several examples of the many styles and media that he explored from the age of 14 until he died of leukemia at the age of 47 in 1978. There are fascinating displays of his working snapshots, written notes, poems, and other artifacts. As an added bonus, there are several pieces in the show that were kept from the public eye until now.
After the death of Chambers’ widow, Olga, a few years ago, the AGO acquired the artist’s working materials, writings, and access to some poignant small works from his adolescence, as well as from his last days in hospital. The childhood works are remarkably moody, and the final deathbed pastels are luminous pieces that seem to be records of an altered state of consciousness, with the naïve charm of Matisse cutouts.
Other highlights of the exhibition include several interesting works from his years in Spain in the 1950s, where he studied art in the rigorous old school system of the Royal Academy in Madrid. Chambers returned to Canada in 1961, when his mother died, bringing with him his Argentinian bride, Olga, a fondness for painting in oils on wood, and his new religious discipline, Catholicism (raised a cool northern Baptist, he astonished his bohemian friends in Madrid when he converted).
Among the Spanish pieces is a light-filled work depicting a young girl gazing out a window beside a middle-aged, heavy woman asleep in a chair. The painting is of Chambers’ Madrid landlady, Manola Pastor, and her daughter, caught in an allegorical composition of youth and age reminiscent of a bygone era. What’s interesting is that such a painting was produced by Chambers, a student from post-war London, Ont., who spent long hours in the Prado Museum while Franco’s fascist government was in firm control outside. Unfortunately, the viewer sees this work near the beginning of the exhibit, without any of these historical or biographical points of reference. The exhibition is presented without any sense of the context, increasing skill, periods of experimentation, and breakthroughs that are so visible and instructive in Chambers’ oeuvre.
Lacking chronological structure, the exhibition misses the opportunity to generate a cumulative sense of wonder. It is one thing to see a painting from Chambers’ last decade, like “Lake Huron #4,” a serene view of sand dune and sky that is at once ordinary and miraculous, a work that is instantly recognizable as a Chambers’. It is quite another thing to see the whole series of four Lake Huron paintings in one room, and then to see the other works from his final years side by side, when every moment was an act of creation, still points of life captured in the presence of the acute mortality that leukemia offered to him.
In his last decade, Chambers coined the term “perceptual realism” to distinguish his work from photorealism and the various traditions of true-to-life painting since the Renaissance. He gave a clue to what he was after when he came back from nine years in Spain and commented that, while he loved the landscape and the climate of Castille, he was “not a native.” He came back to his hometown and chose to stay there because, I think, it was the habitat of his childhood – it was inside him, and he knew that he needed to paint from that centre of life-long knowing in order to get to where he wanted to go.
In his late works, there is a deep affinity for the light, the climate, and the atmosphere of southern Ontario in four seasons, indoors and out. Through ordinary scenes – a child asleep on a couch, a potted daffodil on a winter windowsill, waves rolling toward the Lake Huron shore – Chambers shares and incarnates a timeless experience of wonder, gratitude, and reverence. The intimacy, the gut knowledge of everyday life – of seeing and breathing in all the particularity of a middle-class southern Ontario existence – is as universal and radiant as Monet’s perception of his beloved Giverny water gardens, Vermeer’s Delft interiors, or the Roman lovers and friends who inhabit Caravaggio’s canvases.
Chambers counted James Reaney, Michael Ondaatje, and Greg Curnoe among his friends and collaborators. All of them appreciated his dark side, his sharp wit, and the fact that he did not suffer fools gladly. Ondaatje used one of Chambers’ Spanish nightmare paintings on the cover of one of his books, and Reaney got him to illustrate The Dance of Death of London, Ontario with discreetly bourgeois skeletons in poses of ordinary life. This is a guy who wanted to meet Picasso so badly that he fed some meat to the guard dog, scaled the wall, and surprised the old man in his garden. Known for his spiritual discipline and an uncompromising focus on craftsmanship, he was also earthy, profane, and mischievous. Ignore much of what has been said and written about “Saint Jack.”
Despite the shortcomings of the exhibition and all the critical bluster surrounding this once famous, under-appreciated visionary, it is certainly worth seeing for yourself. If you are not a native of southern Ontario, you may see it anew, as if for the first time. If you’re from around here, you may find a kindred spirit.