March 25, 1931, London, Ontario – April 13, 1978, London, Ontario
Jack Chambers is a renowned realist artist, whose notion of perception as a synthetic experience was formally expressed in a distinctive collage style of filmmaking. Through this style, he influenced the development of the diary and landscape film. In 1969, his aesthetic manifesto, Perceptual Realism, affirmed his belief in art as an intuitive but mediated response to the unity underlying all things. It also confirmed his preference for the photograph as a memory-aid as it preserved the original image without distortion.
Chambers, as a painter, was formally trained in traditional art making. From 1954 to 1959 he attended Madrid’s Escuela Central de Bellas Artes de San Fernando where he excelled as a student, winning the state prize for painting and the Paular Scholarship for landscape painting. He chose to study in Europe because he felt constrained by London’s conservative environment and the inadequacies of his local technical school, H.B. Beal. In his 1978 autobiography, he wrote, “I could only go so far with what I was doing... coming to the same deadend again and again.”
Spanish culture exerted a major influence on Chambers, and many aspects of his work reflect this influence: the preoccupation with death and recollection, the surrealist challenge to the normality of surface reality, an appreciation for light’s revelatory power and references to Catholic iconography. Other influences include mysticism, especially the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila; the occult and parapsychology, where notions of an underlying life force or energy binds all things together. All of these ideas contributed to Chambers’ belief in the visionary nature of the artistic experience. For him, the moment of individual self-awareness when “our souls and the souls of things become present to one another” encompassed myriad associations, past and present, which took the form of temporal and spatial disruptions in his artwork.
Chambers might have settled permanently in Spain, but he returned home in 1961 because of a family illness. His encounter with the landscapes of his youth and the memories it engendered had a powerful effect on him: “The memory of such places multiplied the longer I remained so near them, and the images wedded to their presence surfaced in me like the faces of long lost friends.” He realized his representations of Spanish culture would never possess the same resonance, and so he returned to London.
During his nine-year absence, London had developed a lively cultural scene. Chambers quickly established himself as one of its major figures, contributing to the development of local artist-run centres and participating in group shows. From 1963 onwards, he had regular one-person exhibitions in Toronto, first with the Isaacs Gallery, an important venue for Canadian contemporary art and screenings of artists’ films, and, later, with Nancy Poole’s Studio. At Poole's Studio in 1970, he set sale-price records when two paintings, Sunday Morning No. 2 and Victoria Hospital, sold for $25,000 and $35,000, respectively.
Collage artist Greg Curnoe, Chambers’ closest friend, recalled that Chambers started using a 16mm camera in 1964 to explore the London landscape. In an interview with arts reporter Lenore Crawford in 1969, Chambers remarked on how film was a liberating influence: “After I shot hundreds of feet of film and then edited it to eliminate the non-essentials, I realized what I needed and what I could leave out of a painting.... A painting doesn’t need to tell a story of any kind. It can be appreciated for what’s in it. There doesn’t even have to be relation of objects.” This statement describes his films equally well.
Chambers’ reputation as a film artist is based on the five works he completed between 1966 and 1970: Mosaic (1964–1966), Hybrid (1967), R34 (1967), Circle (1968–1969) and The Hart of London (1968–1970). A mixture of newsreel footage, home movies and photographs, these films reject the notion of linear time, characteristic of popular cinema, because Chambers thought the narrative illusions that resulted misrepresented the true character of human perception.
Using various montage strategies — semantic and formal — his films invest the viewing experience with a sense of “presentness,” so that individuals undergo the same process of self-awareness as Chambers (confrontation of the fragility of domestic happiness, the brutality of human nature, the challenges of artistic ambition, the inevitability of death).
Mosaic undercuts the exuberance of new motherhood (and artistic rebirth) by positioning the family in a cemetery; Hybrid juxtaposes the U.S. bombing of Vietnam with the seemingly benign procedures of agricultural hybridization; R34 employs the collage principles of the film’s subject, Greg Curnoe, to highlight the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary, which underpins the creative act; Circle is a year-long meditation on Chambers’ backyard in which nature’s cyclical rituals, unaffected by human presence, elicit both terror and awe. The Hart of London is a sprawling work that conjoins the public and the personal, history and memory, man and nature, self and other, in an epic-like form that suggests Chambers’ reconciliation with the contradictions of professional and domestic life. The film’s ambitious subject matter and its sophisticated use of printing and montage constructions led critics to refer to it as his masterwork.
Chambers’ films were well received at the time of their release. They were featured in national and international group shows and several received special recognition. In 1966, Mosaic was included in the Ann Arbor post-festival national tour; R34 was awarded the documentary film prize by Jonas Mekas at Canadian Artists’ 68; and The Hart of London was among four Canadian films invited to the third International Avant-Garde Film Festival in London, England. But serious illness — leukemia, diagnosed in 1969 — prevented Chambers from enjoying the acclaim and travelling with his work.
Well before his death in 1978, interest in the films had diminished. Only interventions by individuals, such as American filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who promoted international screenings, Tom Graff, curator, who undertook archival preservation, and critics Ross Woodman and Bruce Elder, who wrote respectively of the romantic and postmodernist attributes of Chambers’ paintings and films, ensured the ongoing awareness of his achievement.
Recent developments in film scholarship, notably “amateur filmmaking,” have meant renewed attention to Chambers’ innovative use of home movies, and his pairing of formal analysis with romantic aspirations has impressed contemporary European filmmakers. Chambers’ legacy is evident in other ways: early financial support for avant-garde film by the Canada Council can be attributed to his lobbying efforts. He also understood that film artists should be properly reimbursed for the use of their work, so he helped put in place distribution and exhibition facilities that would allow this to happen. He established one of the country’s first film co-ops, the London Film Co-op.