| Avis Lang Rosenberg
A Correspondence with Jack Chambers
Vanguard, Vol. 11 #4, May 1982.
[ 7,324 words ]
In September 1970, a major retrospective of the paintings, drawings, and films of Jack Chambers opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Chambers was not yet forty; less than seven years later he succumbed to the leukemia he had been fighting for nearly a decade. The recent history of art in this country would have been different indeed without his presence in London, Ontario, where he worked both as an artist and an organizer of artists, producing a masterful and unprecedentedly costly individual oeuvre and also the foundations for an effective collective force, Canadian Artists' Representation (CAR / FAC).
The two-dimensional work of his final decade commenced with snapshot reminders of the look of a scene, progressed slowly over the laborious course of many months spent recreating the actuality of that scene, and culminated in images of quotidian iconography transfigured by sunlight, suffused with air, and endowed with remarkable beauty. Chambers chose to call this work 'perceptualist' — an art 'conceived during that instant when the world is in focus but not yet moving, the moment before the names go on the objects' (Art and Artists, Dec. 1972, p. 30.). His perceptualism is as simple as the distinguishability of ourselves from the outside world and as complex as the inseparability of ourselves from it. The world is there, as Merleau-Ponty, one of the artist's favourite thinkers, emphasized. Afterwards comes the union of ourselves and the world. Perception, the birth of the world in us, came more and more to be for Chambers the primary event of consciousness, but at the same time he became more and more convinced that the essential act within that event had to be the discovery of the Invisible at the core and at the limits of the visible. Unperceived, the world has no meaning; once perceived, what he termed 'consensus reality' would necessarily urge us into and through itself to transcendence. This reality was not to be discounted, but received. Since Chambers had come to feel that the only suitable vehicle for his thoughts was an image of the world in a state of thereness, the only logical painterly approach came to be an attentive realism that went back beyond style and subjectivity and possessiveness, and thus the 'accurate' (his word) still photo came to be a mandatory and legitimated tool.
The correspondence reprinted below began in early 1972 because my curiosity outlived the major national art magazine's non-interest in publishing the small discovery described in my initial letter. I needed to communicate it anyway, so I wrote to the artist. Surprisingly, he responded immediately. I read more, and wrote back. He wrote again. There was one more exchange, and before I had managed to develop an adequate reply, he telephoned me with an invitation to visit him and his family in London. Doing a book was mentioned. It didn't happen, but that is quite common: everyone who writes has produced many pages that for a wealth of reasons never make it out of the cartons in our closets. Though my subsequent research took me in other directions, I retained the feeling that these six letters constituted a document worth putting into print. I am grateful to Christopher Lowry in Toronto — who together with Atlantis Films is currently producing an hour-long 'portrait documentary' on Chambers — for providing me with the decisive push to get these letters out of their carton for good. And I am grateful to Chambers himself, for replying.
Mr. John Chambers
c/o London Art Museum
305 Queens Avenue
Dear Mr. Chambers:
It is now over a year that I've pondered an interesting discovery concerning your working procedures. Interesting for me, at least: I teach in the Fine Arts Department at UBC and my research interest is still-life painting. One book whose plates are virtually engraved into my memory is Still Life Painting from Antiquity to the Present Day by Charles Sterling. It was with very great pleasure that I saw the 1970 major exhibition of your work in Vancouver, in which there were a number of paintings which utilized complete, partial, or slightly altered images from Sterling's book. Seeing the frontispiece by Fede Galizia so painstakingly recreated (except for the tiny white blossoms) in Madrid Window No. 1, and the combination of parts of a Zurbaran and a Gamier on the same ledge in Madrid Window No. 2, and soon and on — this was a delightfuul and totally unexpected surprise, the more so because 17th century still-life painting is hardly a widespread predilection.
Obviously, what happened for me first was to recognize each image individually and afterwards to realize that they were all from the same book. Both things are important, but of course the latter makes the former all the more fascinating.
Certain questions about facts and attitudes naturally present themselves. The paintings related to Sterling's book are all dated 1967 or later: did you discover it in 1967? The exhibition for which the book is a catalogue happened in Paris during the period you were in Spain: did you see the exhibition? Did you use the squaring-off technique on black-and-white photos of the plates? Did you choose the images more for purely formal reasons than for content, which is to say do you have any special feeling for still-life as a category? Do you own the book?
What are your feelings about the function of paraphrased images, taken out of context from paintings by other artists — well known, such as the Odalisque and Bather by Ingres or lesser known, such as these still-lives — both for you the artist and for the hypothetical viewer who either does or does not recognize the allusions? Do you view the plates as photos or as substitutes for paintings?
Listing all my questions could be quite tedious and besides you can probably anticipate many of them. But clearly they must all revolve around 'why this book?' in the first place, and in the second place, what is really happening in this process of creating new, reticent, and enigmatic images from old unpuzzling ones?
I enthusiastically look forward to your reply, and would like to think that the exchange of letters could be published as a sort of interview, if you are agreeable to it. Let me thank you in advance for your kind consideration.
(Mrs.) Avis Rosenberg
1055 Lombardo Ave.
London 11, Ontario.
Dear Mrs. Rosenberg:
Thank you for your letter of Feb. 18. I will be happy to answer any questions I can about my work and would not object to the correspondence being published if you find it useful. I will answer your questions in the order that they appear:
1) The first time I made use of the book was in 1967. I used a Roman mosaic from the 2nd century in a drawing titled Cat (72" x 48"). The cat used in the drawing is from another book on cats.
2) I did not see the Paris exhibition. I didn't know there was one.
3) No. I covered the plate with tracing paper and squared it off. Once the objects are located in the work I refer back to the plate then to do the drawing.
4) I used the ones I liked best. Most of the still-lives in this book are done with an affection for simple, everyday objects. The artist feels more at home and is less self-conscious doing them and subsequently a love and dignity emanate from them that I don't find in landscape or figure works to that extent or in quite the same way. Particularly the still-lives from the 16th and 17th centuries. Why still-lives? Possibly because the variables can be controlled and detained considerably longer than can shifting figures and changing landscapes. The artist has more control and is therefore more at ease and can lapse into a kind of detached contemplation of the objects as things in themselves. All the constructive varieties of form and light are as available in apples, leaves and cloth as they are in human figures, trees, and mountains; these are another still-life but changing much more quickly and are impossible to detain except by colour-photo.
5) It's a library book long overdue.
6) To me, all objects that appeal are equally suited to work from whether they appear around you or in a book. Usually such ready-mades are very appealing and their availability removes the need to look elsewhere.
7) I view the plates as photos.
2628 W. 11th
Vancouver 8, B.C.
March 5, 1972
Dear Mr. Chambers,
Let me first of all thank you very sincerely for your prompt reply. The clarity of your answers is conducive to speculation and to more questions.
Your comments about the nature of still-life painting make it much clearer why you became so involved with Sterling's book. You seem to favour still-lives that are somewhat archaic, frontal, symmetrical, motionless, sometimes unsophisticated, sometimes ingenuous, usually delicately and carefully finished: the Roman mosaic, Bosschaert, Galizia, Gamier, Zurbaran (have I missed any?) as opposed to, say, Willem Claesz, Heda or Willem Kalf. The Baschenis is somewhat different in character but shares certain similarities of immobility and finish. You mention the affection and dignity and also the concern for formal properties in these works: the implication is that the artist simultaneously saw his subject matter both as meaningful, relevant entity and as pure and accessible form. Do you think this is why you can respond to these works — because they utilize objects that mean as much to you now as they would have meant then and because they deal at the same time with aesthetic problems that are enduring rather than transitional or fashionable, such as perhaps perspective? Actually, your statement that you view the plates as photos rather than substitutes for paintings combines rather uneasily with your sensitivity to what must have been the process of creating those paintings. Is it possibly the case that during your actual physical utilization of the images, the usable-photo aspect ultimately becomes far more significant than any other dimension? If this is true, then, by extension, when you work with other kinds of photos, does your sympathy or grief or love temporarily bow to the technical process of dealing with a 'precision-in-depth colour description'?
I was struck by your expansion of the category of still-life to include things other than the obvious 'dead nature'. What you seem to be suggesting is that everything can be experienced as a succession or compendium of moments long or short, of stills, frames, photos, stilled lives. (This is in fact what a viewer experiences in Olga and Mary Visiting.) What is thus also indirectly implied is that [there] exists a 'still-life approach', which can be thought of as being precisely what you mention in your letter: the 'detached contemplation of objects as things in themselves.' This notion has met with both scorn and approval from an assortment of critics. For the proponents of the still-life approach, Vermeer is often chosen as the embodiment; and for the opponents, the absurdity of the concept is supposedly demonstrated by reductio ad absurdum: can we speak then of a landscape approach, etc? But in fact this is not really so outrageous, because what if not topography is Jan van Eyck doing when he paints Canon van der Paele's face, or Philip Perlstein when he records his own body? I agree (as does Jack Shadbolt, by the way) that nearly anything can be experienced as a still-life. This must somehow involve an enthrallment (whether temporary and self-induced or consistent) with objects, things, items that do not relate to onlooker in a self-determined way. Things looked at, not into.
Another line of questioning is opened up by your use of the term 'readymade'. The word is so heavily weighted down by the implications of six decades of extensive artistic and critical events and commentaries, from Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, and Max Ernst through Joseph Cornell, Iain Baxter, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, plus the countless other manifestations of using an object in a manner varying in some way from the original intention of its maker. That pre-formulated or pre-existing pieces of the tangible world are quite suitable and very tempting to work from is a readily understandable point of view in this century. What is so tantalizingly understated is your comment that 'their availability removes the need to look elsewhere.' You seem to be saying that you don't like to work very hard finding usable images. Do you enjoy the part that chance plays in determining just what you actually encounter among the proliferation of things out there, or do you consciously seek out certain kinds of images to capture a specific idea or effect (I'm thinking of the photos and book plates you've used other than still-lives)? In such works as Cat and Bird Plant, is it poetic free association, pure chance, or rational artistic intention that accounts for the juxtaposition of parts? Furthermore, if it is chance (however you may define it?) that results in the pairing, then this qualifies in a fascinating way the careful, painstaking manner in which you actually utilize those ready-mades; the two traits coexisting would invite comparisons with the methods of the Surrealists.
A slightly different aspect of the 'readymade' issue is the recognition of sources. Whereas not to recognize that Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. derives from Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa would be to forfeit half the appreciation of the action, your works which use readymade images (mainly those using still-lifes) are nonetheless complete in themselves, aesthetically and iconologically. One never seeks the origin of an image outside the painting; one instead may impassively recognize it to be so. Works such as Cat and Grass Box No. 2 have that internal, poetic, metaphysical logic that one associates with the juxtapositions of Magritte and de Chirico.
Lastly, you will no doubt be very interested to learn that the English version of Charles Sterling's Still-Life Painting has mysteriously disappeared from the shelves of the University of B.C. Fine Arts Library, the Simon Fraser University library, and the Vancouver Public Library on Burrard and Robson. It would appear that you are not alone, withholding that 'library book long overdue.'
Let me thank you once again for your considerable kindness in replying to my first letter so quickly, for your willingness to answer my questions, and for your permission to try to have the correspondence published. I have not yet attempted to accomplish this last thing, but the usefulness and lucidity of your statements will no doubt make this a very easy task. Thank you so much for your help.
April 30 72
Dear Mrs. Rosenberg:
Your letters caught me in the midst of adding to the basic ideas of P.R, (Perceptualism) and therefore I've been longer in answering than usual. We do agree that this book has an impressive selection of works. Sanchez Canton for example is so distinctive in his arrangements that it would be unrealistic to choose his works in spite of their appeal because his particular style of presenting objects would seem the reason for the choice. That would be contrary to the use of the photo as an object: we would be working aesthetically and away from the real...that is the real as detached 'enthrallment'. The anonymity of objects is maintained by a straightforward grouping without cleverness or sensationalism. This approach preserves something of the anonymous character (particularity) of things in nature. Canton's groupings are highly original and elegant & so distinctive of himself that to do a plate of his would be to do a Canton & not an object. This gives an idea as to why the others were used: where the apples appear anonymous as in nature you can pick them for your own. In other words you can appropriate the qualities of objects without getting the artist as well. Besides, works in b&w only activate a reduced sensory response: the response to density, contrast, extension, number and so on. So it isn't as though one were perceiving the mystery in these b&ws as in colour life, but rather a 'feeling' of their physicality. Also it is not that they 'mean as much' to me now as 'they would have meant then' but rather the contrary: they are meaningless: the artist has dealt with the object with a minimum of style. Menendez is another good example of an artist concerned with care-and-leisure-to-complete, and the still-life fills the requirement almost as well as the colour-photo today. Except the colour description gives us the world to choose from. Look at the favour for still-life by Vermeer: almost all interiors, meaning consistent effects of light; such is the photographic tendency of many artists for 'control' and 'availability' of their material. Van Gogh expresses the difficulty of perceptualists existing before the colour-photo: 'I want to finish my pictures more, I want to do them with care....confronted by the difficulties of weather and changing effects, (ideas) are reduced to being impracticable and I end by resigning myself...' The point is of course that the colour photo is a tool in the recreative process of Perceptualism and not subject-matter as it is in the b&w photo. In Perceptualism the experience is always the prelude to the colour photo and the experience must come first; without the experience of the event, the event is just subject-matter again and does not contribute to the creative will in redeeming nature. Like all technologies whether mixing paint, outlining concepts or utilizing photos, when the means becomes an end in itself the work becomes a product: the trend produce of art-machines. Artists who think their products are manufacturers of the contemporary North American tradition.
2) ...'the usable photo aspect ultimately becomes far more significant than any other dimension'. Yes, to the extent that the photo of objects has that anonymity mentioned above: that we are dealing with a reduced response as in the b&w photo.
3)...'sympathies with dealing with precision-in-depth colour photos'. B&w photos activate a sense of density & volume. There is a minimal special experience, pessimistic compared to colour. B&w does not activate all the sensory responses that colour-life will do. B&w photos arouse our tactile sense and we experience a physical grasping of the dimensional presence of the object: we feel the volumes in them. Again, the anonymity of the object is where you feel the object and not the artist. So much for the handling of b&w objects.
Colour descriptions then are quite another thing. I've never been able to use a colour photo in the same way that I've used b&w ones. Only when I take the colour photo to record real objects in nature is it useful. It becomes the target through which I aim my experience to the canvas. If I have a colour photo but no experience of what the photo describes then I have no creative response to shoot with. There is no appropriated charge of energy from the event and therefore no experience with which to recreate it. Colour photos then can not be found in the way b&w ones can. Colour photos require an initial sensory experience to both warrant & fulfil them. Why do people photograph mostly those things & people they care for? Perhaps it is a gesture of the creative will to project the love they have for those they photograph and to redeem them by it. In taking photos we may be really exercising a creative aspect of our spiritual life: redeeming nature through love.
4) ...'inclusion of everything is a still-life concept...' Nature redeemed is the painting which is animated with spiritual energy and has fulfilled the object from within, from the creative center. Our act of perceiving the mysterious in the natural world is an act of creation in itself; but often we are dazzled blind by nature's foot-work: the ornament of motion & change. In the continual turning of the world's becoming we do a biopsy on the formless aspect of time & space & call it: a year, a day, an instant. Since time & its elements are continually moving, the specimen caught is the outward appearance & gesture of a continuous cyclic renewal. And what is revealed in the caught moment of perceptualism is a motionless aspect of that change: a stilled image depicting nature but animated from within, as is the artist himself, so that the work emanates in its new being rather than rotates as it does in nature.
What I mean by the 'detatched contemplation of objects' is: that given the reduced sensory response to the b&w photo we do not have an original experience to inform the creative will nor do we have then a description, just a photo. This kind of photo is a found mechanical object and stimulates a reduced response: visual-tactile sensibility & is a memorizer & aesthetic taster. Since the rest of the viewer's mind, those parts of the mind not interpreting the other senses, is free to think about the object: contemplate his own feeling about its spacial illusion. Perceptualism on the other hand you don't think about, you don't contemplate, you go back to it for an experience.
5) ...'This must somehow involve an enthrallment'. The colour description accurately records the event during its instant of life in the artist's perception. The recording of this time slice and my perception of it are not simultaneous; that is while we're taking in the scene we're not looking through a camera. The record happens after the experience has been had. The experience of a particular instant of time may happen year after year at the same time & under recurring conditions precluding the description. So the unique moment in passing never seen before nor likely to appear again has nevertheless a certain objective permanence from one year to the next and the sun on these objects every June is very similar. So the 'same' experience may be evoked by similar conditions: that the experience will probably be not radically different from the original one, and a record can be made of similar conditions and still claim the original creative response.
The object the artist makes from his experience, as well as perception in itself, are both creation and both are analogous to the life Force creating objects in the world. And it is this energy in-take & energy return, the pattern of Creation that occurs in both instances: one, the painting, is an intentional objectification of the other.
The works of machine-art & expressionist abstractions, for example, spin products of their own manufacture, drawing off life's energy but dismissing the world itself: consumation without an object. Realisms imitative of matter which do not redeem matter by a creative intention are recording ledgers, more fanciful but less accurate than the camera. The Mystery we perceive in the natural world is the same as That within us: That in us which mysteriously acknowledges itself out there. The 'out-there' is all the material phenomena perceived by combinations of senses which make me aware of the out-there. Mystery nourishes my absorption in it. When the attraction to phenomena is strong the impact unfolds the senses from around the creative center extending them, holding them open just as the forces of nature combine to open the bud, releasing to life the seeds of its continuing mystery. The mystery in nature is acknowledged by the mystery in man in a mysterious way. The mystery which energizes nature is perceived only by the mystery energizing man. Both are patterns of Creation: both are objectivizations of the creative will. The mystery in man is personalized through his sense of the Creator's will in him and it is by means of this will in man that he redeems nature. The objectivization of Creation is The Word; the Word is the utterance most like the Creator and redeems man. Redeemed man in turn redeems other men & as perceptualist, redeems nature. To experience Creation is to pronounce the Word; To will creatively is to love the created world; it is also to create the world by love. We have more vital knowledge of Creation through love than through nature. The appropriation of nature's mystery by our own creative center is the essential & fulfilling act we experience within ourselves willing us to imitate the process of objectivization perceiving us. Although we experience it in ourselves it transcends both our physical senses & our reason. It is therefore, invisible & cannot be understood.
6) ...Re: readymaids: readymaids as the Duchamp tradition has used them are pieces in an intellectual game. Memory is the stock-in-trade of machine-artists & dialecticians and those who invent instant-history, in order to get 'better-and-better'; readymaids serve memory. But b&w photos understood as above may be found anywhere and much depends on the photo itself: contrast & feel.
7) Yes there is an association in such works as Cat & Birdplant in that a tiger belongs in the grass and the root expression of plants is air. But those are drawings & are arbitrarily coloured & have nothing to do with perceptualism.
Artists who find nature in other artists rather than in direct observation work out of the intellect & taste: the aesthetic. Art for the sake of art is aesthetic ritual, mental entertainment. Like Duchamp's art it happens in the head. Duchamp's method applied dialectically is one of 'old mill' streams down which North American art is sold.
P.S. Please excuse the typing (and writing). Would you send me please a xerox of my first letter to you — I want it for my records & can't find my copy. Thanks.
2628 W. 11th
5 June 1972
Thank you for the long letter. I have been immersing myself in Chambers literature, especially of course the P.P. manifesto. After rereading your statements a number of times, what I want to say is: Yes yes I see.
The differences between your perceptualist paintings and the earlier aesthetic works become increasingly clear. A stylization, an over-statement could have it that they are the differences between an absorption in life lived in its wholeness through moments that take the whole of that life to ready oneself for, and beautiful objects created within one rather separable chamber of that life: the studio. Your own definitions of the aesthetic mode of crafting art can be partly (though certainly not pejoratively) applied to much of your own pre-PR oeuvre: 'intellect', 'taste', and 'style' are much in evidence. Intellect means the juggling of messages. Taste and style involve the exploitation of the subtletiese time the work is completed. It then exists and it is the catalyst, the reminder, the summation, the documentation and the essence of the experience that it evokes. Being so 'real', once completed the painting approaches the state of having no style (I'm thinking of Victoria Hospital rather than the elegantly tipped 401 No.1). Further, the physical means by which it came into being (squaring-off) do not seem specially laden with significance: very interesting, yes, but quite peripheral, truly a means to an end. Or, to approach the topic in a different way, realism seems for you to be a subsidiary end, the true method and true result being always metaphysical but simply having to get embodied temporarily in a highly mechanical process. Presumably you don't live for the hours spent smelling turpentine.
The unimportance of the viewer is another side of perceptualism. Judging from your written statements, one would say that you paint for yourself and not in order to communicate messages to other people, especially people you don't know. If perceptualism can redeem the things and people you love, then their immortalization is a transaction between you and the source of all energy, creation, and continuity. The act has nothing to do with a viewer; he seems irrelevant. Yet viewers there are of course and one distinct possibility is that they will view your paintings as having 'subject matter' (cf. 'everyone seems to enjoy scenes of vast sky...'). This misrepresentation — if it irredeemably is one — is analogous to the distinction indicated here: 'In Perceptualism the experience is always the prelude to the colour photo and the experience must come first; without the experience of the event, the event is just subject-matter again....'(It is also analogous to your looking at other people's paintings.) For an aesthetically inclined or simply cynical viewer, all realisms whether of matter or perceptualism, can equally be matter for subject-matter. (A similar problem exists in non-objective art: all all-red canvasses are equivalent.) However, considering the universality of the experiences you have chosen to redeem and the co-existence in the paintings of the highly general and the acutely particular, there is a great likelihood that the associative capacities of attuned viewers will enable them to ascertain the true content. Then again, perhaps it is these very qualities that will encourage others to pass over the true content.
A comparison that continues to play on my mind for an assortment of reasons is that between you and Vermeer. Amaya mentioned this in the article in Art in America, 1970, but it is only just beginning to take hold in my imagination. I now feel that the quality, seemingly inherent in a Vermeer painting, of looking with detached enthrallment at the outsides of things and not in, can be a limitation existing in the mind of the viewer. This still-life-approach formulation seems now somewhat inadequate and unsuitable to describe Vermeer. Beyond and under and above the formal properties or subject-matter per se is an indication of a fullness of meaning, a private communion between painter and experience, a clue that perhaps Vermeer too was involved in some of the kinds of things you write about re: perceptualism. Of course he is at the same time a quintessentially aesthetic and occasionally intellectual creative being, not going outside style and beauty but attaining the sublime within them. Nonetheless it seems that the elusive agent through which Vermeer transcends the category of common genre (which you have combined with portraiture) in, say, the women at home paintings, is just possibly a deep commitment, akin to what you call perceptualism, to immortalizing via beauty that which he loved and knew most completely. It is the commitment of someone who paints primarily for himself and not with patronage, enlightened or not, at the fore of the imagination. Painting to enable one to hold on to the reality of one's own life.
Reticence, refinement, intimacy, and coolness being hallmarks of the greater part of Vermeer's work and yours post-1963, one is moved to find similarities with Vermeer not only in the perceptualist paintings but in those slightly earlier paintings that nevertheless have similar genre-like subjects. Besides View of Delft and Towards London 401 No. 1 in which the luminous separate visible strokes and the overall uncanny realism are really strikingly comparable, the following paintings strike a few chords. 0lga and Mary Visiting and Gentleman with a Lady Drinking (Berlin) — a room and a simple moment of suspension stretched into forever...Stuart Mixing Reds and Greens and Lady Weighing Gold, Lady in Blue Reading a Letter, The Lacemaker — concentration, self-absorption, the head down and the identity concealed. There are more but not quite worth mentioning; as with many delicately rooted ideas, the overall impression is more convincing and evocative than specific examples. But the vibes are there.
I should probably wrap up the letter because it's getting somewhat unwieldy but there are a few short points left that I'd like to mention. One: Your aesthetic functions volumetrically and in black and white, while your life and memories happen in colour. Therefore colour is more real, no? However, Roman Polanski made some very interesting comments along these lines re: film in an interview after Knife in the Water was shown on TV a few weeks ago. He said that since (de facto) early films were made in b&w, that therefore people came to experience that medium as possessing truth and reality. Colour films when introduced seemed strange and alien, simply because the visual expectations of normalcy had grown up around the early use of b&w. If colour film had come out first, then things would be reversed; he seemed to be saying it was all in the conditioning. It wasn't a question of comparing the b&w film to colour-life; it was just the way things were.
A note on the original subject of still life, re: your letter p.1: certainly to redo a Sánchez Cotán grouping would be to do him and not the object, but surely one of the most distinctive groupings in the whole history of still life is Zurbaran's carnation resting on the cup and saucer that you used in Madrid Window No. 2. By the way, did you read about that painting having been bought by the Norton Simon Foundation for three million dollars?
On that question of personalities vs. archetypes, was it in order to achieve greater anonymity, gravity, and stylelessness that you removed the tiny blossoms from the Fede Galizia in Madrid Window No. 17? A small change, but the result is certainly more sober and timeless.
Is that a self-portrait in Middle I — ? contemplating at leisure the epitome of the classical form: calm, self-sufficient, beautiful? Does Ingres to you represent the achievement or the inevitably doomed struggle for the achievement of a genuine transmigrated complete classical mode?
Tom Graff and Gathie Falk were trying to describe to me two paintings of yours that they saw last month in Toronto, a landscape on the banks of Lake Ontario and a living room. Could you possibly send me a slide or two or a few photos of your recent work, if it is convenient?
Thank you again for your last letter; I look forward to the possibility of there being another one.
P.S. I dropped an exploratory note to artscanada and have heard nothing yet.
July 9, 1972
Thanks for your comments and fresh observations, A point at a time:
1) Definitely not, I'm very interested in people's reactions to my paintings. It would make me very happy if one of my works redeemed reality for someone; that is, that someone perceived the intelligence constantly ordering life under the cover of form; to see that an intention influences the creative will...influences the form creativity takes, in life and also in art.
2) I do not redeem things by painting them, 'immortalization'. There is an elegiac inference in painting things, in that its material existence is limited; particular things for us are cut down and are gone...but then so are paintings. One way of saying redemption is perception and the people in paintings like the people outside them are not redeemed by a painting, by nature, unless they perceive it. They are not redeemed by the creative will unless they experience the intention. It goes without saying that we are redeemed by our Creator, but we ourselves may redeem our experience of reality; and that is what perception does; that is what perceptualism intends to do.
3) Not that many people really see things out their windows, whether it's the eye or the house, because as we succumb to the consensus aspects of life: distance, weights, numbers, time; objects acquire a diminishing reality about them. The reality 'out there' dies for us each morning as our heads are switched on.
4) 'Painting to enable one to hold onto the reality of' Life...the manifestation of it which has not been formed or given shape...the invisible Body I call it, that wears matter like skin on its feet, like the invisible man who is only visible when he is bandaged up...the manifold material embodiment that turns and rises by invisible means.
5) Yes, colour is more real. It has been said that the capacity to experience new colours and subtle colour varieties developed gradually in man. Apparently the possibility of a richer communication through colour today was not available say, during the last 400 years of Greek art. It has also been demonstrated scientifically that aspects of the invisible Body are visible to some people; that is to say, that what is not at first visible is known intuitively through vision, meditation, prophecy,...then it becomes materially visible and is then 'handed down' by organic evolution into our capacity to see it, such as 'energy fields' for example. 'My personal observations of the field is only a gross evaluation of the tremendous variations, subtleties and multiplicities of change in a phenomenon that is beyond words. The immense beauty of the movement of the field seen in mid-ocean is breathtaking. One has the feeling that what moves within each of us is the same as what moves this earth and the universe' (Dr. John Pierrakos). However those who can persist in exercising the 'organs' of intuitive knowledge acquire far greater vision of reality than do our two eyes. The knowledge of intuitive vision is more real than objective reality. The consensus visual is a less vital reality than the invisible one which informs it.
6) Memories are rather b&w. For me it is more correct to say 'while your life and perceptions happen in colour.'
7) I don't agree with Polanski's ideas on b&w & colour. If colour in movies had come first there would have been an environment for some serious experimentation re the adaptation of colour to movement. Still-colour & moving-colour are very different experiences. Colour at any speed demands more from the senses, a deeper more complete involvement than does b&w. When the action is too fast for the colour, that is, when things happen too quickly in the story line the colour is lost and one concentrates on the speedometer and not the landscape. B&w movies deprive us or relieve us of much of our capacity for awareness. Colour awareness is equal to a more complete sense of reality. B&w limits the breadth of experience to the confines of a storyline. Colour plus storyline divides concentration. Colour in movies should be integrated with the action and not be just the paint job on a moving vehicle. The peculiar increased reality awareness which colour can give in a given scene is drained off by action. There has to be a balance of both for each scene....each frame? Why do slow-motion colour sequences come off so well? The action is developed at a rate where concentration on colour (therefore increased sensibility) does not suffer.
8) How many painters have you seen who suspend vegetables by a thread in an open window?
9) I felt the blossoms weren't necessary to the structure.
10) I think what I like in Ingres is his elegance and domesticated sensuality. A man who likes to touch as much as he likes to look.
11) One way to sum up this aesthetics versus perception bit and its variety of shadings is to consider aesthetics as studio-consciousness and perception as life-consciousness. The in-between holds multiple blends of both. The orientation while tending toward life-consciousness may not be apparent in a comparative view of the work; the work has all those stylistic ingredients of studio concerns. Nevertheless the work develops, it does not become fixed, circular and a closed circuit. When it does that, closes, the work reflects a life-style which is life more and more entirely lived on the surface as entertainment.
When life-consciousness or the ability to learn by experience is still appearing as studio-consciousness as in most beginning art, one can think of it as a position below ground level, an interior position, dark, where reality is the reflections of memory, fantasy with a minimum of exterior perception. One produces expressionistic works of a conscious subjectivity out of this environment.
Ground level is where one becomes aware of an objective world; studio-consciousness and life consciousness are in a kind of balance. 'Moving Side & Forward' represents that balance at ground level where neutral light (b&w) falls on objects of consensus reality. The sensibility is still an exploratory one, still tactile. The intention of the artist is still one of touching, of experiencing the dimension of objects; like a child he becomes familiar with the world around him through the experience of handling it. There is no colour at this stage of experience because colour is a concentration in itself and the expression of colour as expressive of form would be too confusing. Colour and form are different sensibilities; they are put together to make objects by the mind. Colour dilates consciousness and so does form: in putting them together a particular balance must be attained where one does not dissipate the other; that is, where colour does not become the colour of things but maintains its vitality and its own experience. Colour as an experience does not collaborate in the identification of things: green trees, yellow canaries.
The artist has to articulate his experience of colour and his experience of form so that he can put them together without sacrificing one to the other. Through consciousness of his colour-form experience he can calculate and intentionally construct a painting which preserves the vital colour experience while giving it form. He maintains the given reality of the objective world and his perception of that world as colour space. Summary: Identification of objects belongs to the tactile, dimensional sensibility. Colour as a perceptual experience articulates space strictly in terms of space awareness; not as distance in feet and inches. Tactility offers the minimum in space awareness, its purpose is to enumerate and define. One creeps backward in memory, the other flies toward knowledge.
Dividing perception into touch and vision is a recent consideration.
I don't know what I can get you [in the] way of slides but I'll see.
NOTE: Between 1966 and 1970, Chambers utilised 9 plates in Charles Sterling, Still Life Painting, Universe Books, Inc., 1959 for 9 of his works: (1) Peaches, 1966 - Sterling pl. 59, by Il Gobbo dei Frutti; (2) Three Pages in Time, 1966 - Sterling opposite p. 61, by Jan Davidsz de Heem; (3) Cat, 1967 - Sterling pl. 6, Roman mosaic; (4) Madrid Window #1, 1968 - Sterling frontispiece, by Fede Galizia: (5) Madrid Window #2, 1968-69 - Sterling pl. 41, by Francois Gamier, and Sterling pl. 66, by Francisco Zurbaran; (6) Music Box, 1968 - Sterling pi, 56, by Evaristo Baschenis; (7) Grass Box #1, 1968- Sterling pl. 47, by Jacques Linard; (8) Grass Box #2, 1968-70 - Sterling pl. 25, by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder; (9) Grass Box #3, 1970 - Sterling pl. 25, Bosschaert re-used.
Vanguard, Vol. 11 #4, May 1982.
Text: © Avis Lang Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
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