Highway 401 Revisited: On the Jack Chambers Retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Reviewed in this essay: Jack Chambers: Light, Spirit, Time, Place and Life. Curated by Dennis Reid, with Sarah Milroy. Until May 13, 2012 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. http://www.ago.net/jack-chambers-light-spirit-time-place-and-life.

401 Towards London No. 1, by Jack Chambers. 1968-9. Oil on wood. 183 x 244 cm.

I live in Toronto but hometown is still Windsor and though I’ve taken the train many times, flown the ridiculously short distance, and on one ill-advised trip even rode the bus, the only real way to get home is to drive the 401. It’s flat and straight and doesn’t curve much. It lulls you to sleep at the wheel and only the occasional flipped minivan or jack-knifed 18-wheeler in the grass will remind you this highway is a real thing and not a three and a half hour dreamscape that seems to average about 140 km/h.

The 401 trip is all hinterland and approaches: either we’re in the middle of farmland or getting close to Toronto, Windsor, London or one of the services centres that become favorite nowheres. By taking the 401 you know how you got to where you are, know the stuff in between and how it’s all connected together. The highway always existed in the back of my head—the mind’s eye wanders out along it from time to time when I think of something to the west of the city—but it wasn’t until being at the AGO not long after I moved here and stood in front of Jack Chambers’s painting 401 Towards London No. 1 that those thoughts of Southwestern Ontario pavement were suddenly connected to other people. That was a remarkable moment, realizing that other people think about this place, too, the highway becoming mythic and dreamy at once.

Now when I’m on the 401 near London I always wonder which interchange Chambers painted. I think I know which one it is, and I could probably look it up on Google Streetview to make sure, or cross reference with the old King’s Highway sign in the painting. But I don’t really want to know exactly. It’s better to think maybe they all could be the one in the painting. This part of Ontario doesn’t get this kind of treatment much. The occasional novel explores the area, but seeing it so big, up on a wall? This is something.

With the AGO’s retrospective show on Chambers’ career, there’s suddenly a lot more of Ontario to see this way. The exhibit is divided into four themes: Light, Spirit, Time and Place, and for those mostly familiar with his place-based work, Chambers’ full range as one of Canada’s most important modern artists is revealed. But also remarkable is that after some youthful travels abroad, Chambers chose to move back to his hometown and work from there, something many of us expats who retain a great affection for where we came from, but don’t live there, might feel some guilt about. Because of his choice, we get renderings of quotidian days in and around London, Ontario in a family house, probably not unlike the one a lot of us grew up in, with a family at the dinner table or a child sleeping on the sofa. We peer into summer days at Lake Huron beaches, where the sand seems to go on and on till it slips over the curve of the Earth. Chambers did not go far to find his muse, and that’s alright.

The retrospective at the AGO also shows some of the notes and preparation work that went into the finished pieces, as well as some of Chambers’ film work, like The Hart of London. If you make it to the AGO—or even if you don’t—the catalog that was prepared for the show is extensive and wonderful. It includes an opening essay by the show’s curator, Canadian art history heavyweight Dennis Reid, as well as essays on the four themes by Sarah Milroy, Gillian MacKay, Christopher Dewdney and Ross Woodman. Also appreciated are personal reflections from friends like Michael Ondaatje.

After going through both the exhibition and the catalog, I’m left wanting a lot more. It’s a shame he died of leukemia far too young, at the age of 47, in 1978.