No Ideas But in Things

A Jack Chambers retrospective

When I was entering my teen years in the lower middle-class doldrums of Los Angeles, California, I was embittered by what I imagined was the misfortune of growing up in a place that was brutally ugly and devoid of either history or culture. Never mind that I was fifteen minutes from the Pacific Ocean and not all that much farther from wooded canyons and mountains and desert, my immediate surroundings were nearly identical ranch-style houses hastily assembled over razed orange and avocado groves, supermarkets, gas stations, fast food restaurants, strip malls, and vast parking lots. The monumental concrete freeway onramps at least promised the possibility of escape at very high speeds. The most interesting thing we could think of doing on Saturday nights was sit in the grade school playground drinking Bacardi 151 straight and wondering whether we could sneak into the nearby Pussycat Theater, where Deep Throat played for my entire childhood.

Jack Chambers, Lunch, 1969

Jack Chambers, Lunch, 1969

During those years, I spent endless hours reading the biographies of artists and writers who lived in beautiful places I thought more conducive to creativity than the one I had arbitrarily inherited: Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse in Paris, John Keats and Percy B. Shelley in Rome, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko in New York. The romance of those places, those lives, cast a spell over me, and helped me endure isolated years in a world I found desolate. What I didn’t understand then is that art and vision don’t really spring from the beauty and glamour of Paris, or Rome, or New York, or from contemplating the masterpieces in the Louvre or the Galerie Borghese or the Metropolitan Museum, but rather from engaging with what is outside one’s window or front door, wherever that may be, and that the world of childhood creates not just memories but categories of mind from which one cannot really escape. Travel is a diversion, perhaps an important one. But I think one would be just as well off, as Thoreau would have it in his essay “On Walking,” sauntering around one’s own neighborhood with eyes wide open. From that point of view, strip malls and gothic cathedrals are aesthetic equals.

When the twenty-two-year-old Jack Chambers (a survey of whose work, Jack Chambers: Light, Spirit, Time, Place and Life, is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario through May 13), headed for Europe in 1953, he undoubtedly imagined he was leaving behind his drab London, Ontario, past. Chambers famously dropped in unannounced at Picasso’s villa in Vallauris in the south of France, asking the master where he should go and study art. Not surprisingly, Picasso told him to go to Barcelona; Chambers ended up at the Escuelo de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. He didn’t return to London until his mother fell gravely ill in 1961, and even then he didn’t expect to stay.

The sojourns of North American artists to Europe have more often than not resulted in pale imitations of the European fashions of the moment, whether that was impressionism or cubism or surrealism, and one can see the results on the walls of the less distinguished corridors of places like the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, and even the Metropolitan Museum of New York; these are works whose idiom and style feels disconnected from anything like lived experience. Though an immensely gifted draughtsman, the work Chambers created in Spain—influenced by figures whose paintings he would have seen in the Prado in Madrid, like El Greco, Jusepe de Ribera, and Francisco de Zubaran—seems ill-suited to his temperament, and not a little juvenile. In “Man and Dog” (1959), for instance, a huge, muscular man rendered in fierce blacks and grays, sits with his head in his giant hands, menaced on one side by a ravenous dog, and the nearly abstract “Surrealist Composition” (1960) is haunted by a skull faintly glimmering through the dark glazes in the painting’s upper right hand corner. These are allegorical works bursting with spiritual torment and longing (Chambers converted to Catholicism while in Spain), but it is the spiritual torment and longing of seventeenth-century Spain, not that of a southwestern Ontario boy in 1960. While art may be universal, individual works need to be true to the experience of a time and a place; art is a way of speaking, and real conversations are live and in person.

Chambers’ work of the early nineteen-sixties shifted abruptly from the chiaroscuro athleticism of his years in Spain to a kind of hallucinatory domestic realism gravitating around his Spanish wife, the beautiful Olga Sanchez Bustos, and their young children. In the stunning ink on paper drawing “Olga and Mary Visiting” (1964), the two women are on a couch, Olga nervously perched on the edge of her seat sipping tea, Mary leaning back, legs crossed. Rather than using dramatic contrasts, Chambers deploys a pointillist style familiar from Georges Seurat’s charcoal drawings, suffusing the scene with a subtle, swarming, eerily radiant light. In the closely related oil on wood painting “Olga Visiting Mrs. V” (1964), Olga is feeding an infant in her arms, while the elderly Mrs. V. sits on a chair behind her. The whole painting, frame included, is slathered with a sickly, rumpled yellow glaze. While the virtuoso light effects of “Olga and Mary Visiting” make the drawing both distant and ecstatic, its theme not family but light, the yellow coating in “Olga Visiting Mrs. V.” bathes the painting in anxiety.

Jack Chambers’ major breakthrough as a painter came with the advent of what he called “perceptual realism.” Inspired by the writings of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “perceptual realism” is not about the photographic depiction of the world, but rather about the instantaneous impact of the world on the perceiver; it is more akin to revelation and experience than to any superficial conception of reality. The iconic “401 Toward London No. 1” (1968-1969) is a luminous panorama. A wedge of dark green wood sits in the middle ground of the canvas, with the nearly empty highway extending out to a low-slung horizon. The painting is dominated by a cathedral sky, pale and swept by white clouds. “Victoria Hospital” (1969-1970), the hospital where Chambers died of leukemia in 1978, is a study in winter grays, the foreground dirty snow and a single leafless tree, the hospital spooky and crepuscular, the cloud-grey sky bleak. In both of these paintings, the flat landscape is dwarfed by the soaring—and menacing—sky.

Chambers’ domestic scenes of the late nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies are intense, anxiously impersonal, and radiant. In “Sunday Morning No. 2” (1968-1970), for instance, his two sons sit watching television, a teddy bear on the otherwise conspicuously clean and empty floor.  Still in their bathrobes, the boys sit uneasily on their chairs, while thin, winter light floods in through the window behind them. And in the famously unfinished “Lunch” (1969), Chambers’ family enacts a kind of last supper, with the artist himself at the head of the table, his two sons gazing uneasily toward the viewer. Like “Sunday Morning No. 2,” the painting is dominated by a window onto a winter scene, the sky the same expectant blue. In both of these paintings, the family seems incidental to the cold sky and the light in a way we’re meant to understand spiritually; these are works charged with the anticipation, and dread, of a messianic arrival.

Chambers is torn between an instinctive attraction to the consuming absolute and the reality of a life actually lived, a life of highways and hospitals and Sunday mornings. Part of the power of works like “Victoria Hospital” and “Lunch” is their gut-wrenching ambivalence: while celebrating the city of his birth and family life, he also repudiates them, reminding
us—ruthlessly—that they and we pale before the indifferent eternity of time and light and sky. Chambers is an artist intensely uncomfortable inside his own existence; it’s easy to see why he wanted to run away to Spain.

In his 1967 film “R-34”, Chambers’ tribute to his friend and fellow London, Ontario, artist Greg Curnoe, one finds Curnoe hunched over in his congested studio, exacto knife in hand, making collages. Chambers and Curnoe were in most ways
opposites: Curnoe was hugely influenced by neo-Dada and conceptual art, Chambers was an ardent classicist; Curnoe was obsessed with the details of time and place, Chambers embraced the immediate as a way of pursuing transcendence; Curnoe’s “View of Victoria Hospital, First Series” (1968) consists of descriptions of Victoria Hospital as seen from his studio window, Chambers’ “Victoria Hospital” is a gloomy gothic landscape painting with a huge, cloud-filled sky. But what both Curnoe and Chambers grasped in different ways was that substantial art arises from location and memory and community, and not directly from larger philosophical orpolitical ideas.

Following the contemporary art world, one would get the impression that art is a global conversation circulating between cosmopolitan capitals like Berlin, Paris, London, New York, and maybe Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, big-ticket events like documenta in Kassel, Germany and the Venice Biennale, and supplemented by the endless opportunities for access and conversation provided by the internet. While this idea can evoke utopian feelings (everyone, after all, wants to be part of the “global conversation”), it’s worth keeping in mind that this is an illusion. If art and thought are rooted in deep, lived experience, then there is no such thing as the global art world (except perhaps in the economic sense) or global conversations; there is only an engagement with the things and people that immediately surround us. This isn’t provincialism, either: the provincial implies limitations created by ignorance, whereas engagement with that which surrounds us is really about the primacy of actual experience, of actual conversation, of real communities. It’s always better to contemplate a mediocre landscape painting that one can actually stand in front of than a reproduced masterpiece; it is always better to think about gloomy hospitals one has spent one’s life around than soaring cathedrals one has visited for a few hours; it is always better to talk about life and art with hangers-on in the local pub or coffee shop than with great philosophers and artists in town for the evening. To be involved with one’s actual world is to be involved in one’s own life and the ideas, images, and words that live there, and to take them seriously. “No ideas but in things” said William Carlos Williams.

He was  right, at least with regard to art and literature: when we make art or write about things we aren’t connected to by real experience and history, we quickly slip into empty fantasy. Jack Chambers was an artist with as high and tragic a spiritual ambition as Ribera and Zubaran, but he had to come home to London, Ontario, to pursue it.

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