Review: Jack Chambers: Light, Spirit, Time, Place and Life at the AGO.

December 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Chambers "Lunch" (Estate of Jack Chambers/Loch Gallery)

London, Ontario’s Jack Chambers (1931-1978) – painter, filmmaker, art theorist – was one of the most complex and unusual voices to emerge in Canadian art in the past century. His widely varied body of work spanned from intensely experimental films like Hart of London to surrealistic paintings of his daily life, experiments with optical painting effects and hyper realist landscape pieces. Continuous within all of this probing was a specifically regional sensibility and a highly esoteric version of Catholicism.

The retrospective of his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario was curated by UofT’s own Dennis Reid, marking his swan song for museum. It divides Chambers’ career into four thematic sections: light, spirit, time and place. The divisions aren’t always successful and generally have more to do with style than they really do with thematic content. This is partially because these thematic elements are often so blurred in Chambers’ works that they become interchangeable. This isn’t just to quibble, but to point out that the attempt to make the work flow in this gridded way (which Chambers himself often applied when planning his works) often leaves things frayed at the edges and smoothing them over, rather than teasing them apart, ends up obscuring them more.

While it’s his photo realist paintings that get the most play, some of the more obscure parts of his career are also thankfully brought to light. His rarely seen, and slight, experiments with abstraction show up, as do his dark and brooding early works from Spain. You can also see one of his intriguing experiments with vacuum formed plastic while his film work gets boxed in at the centre. Meanwhile, his subtle silver paintings hang under unflattering light that flattens them. Where the show is most successful is in the exemplary way it maps out the production of a few choice paintings. Displaying notes, diagrams, source photos and sketches, much of the labour that went into making the works is clearly laid out in fascinating detail. The other side of that, of course, is that it somewhat undermines the epiphanal character of the works by strangulating them in a crowded formal analysis.

Unlike the sprawling General Idea exhibit which takes up two floors of the museum, this one – which the institution decided to ram into a corner – feels cramped, which could explain why so much is missing. This impression is aided by the exhibit’s lack of specific focus. There’s little to give you a sense of the highly local and nationalistic conditions which his work developed out of, or the grand – and extremely Canadian – variation of Surrealism which he termed ‘perceptual realism’. If only someday someone could put together a show about the relationship between Chambers and fellow apostate Marshall McLuhan’s idée fixe on technology as theodicy…

Jack Chambers: Light, Spirit, Time, Place and Life runs at the AGO until May 13, 2012.

– Matthew Purvis

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