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Jack Chambers: Victoria Hospital

LONDON Jack Chambers’s Victoria Hospital (1969–70) presents that prominent London, Ontario, institution near the centre of a broad winter landscape, with a rough but natural foreground taking up one-third of the image and a vast winter sky filling the other two-thirds. It is a large painting—almost two-and-a-half metres wide—yet it is executed with great care; Chambers has paid close attention to the exact depiction of every form as well as to the precise, subtle quality of the light on this grey, overcast day. The light is cool overall, yet curiously warming where it helps to define the presence of trees, the contours of the ground, and the various human structures that stretch across the horizon—most strikingly, the hospital. Chambers defined this approach to painting as “perceptual realism” in an article in artscanada in October 1969.

The painting was undertaken as part of a joint project with another London-born artist, Chambers’s friend Greg Curnoe, who lived and worked near Victoria Hospital. In August 1968, Curnoe had begun work on his View of Victoria Hospital, First Series, a monumental set of six lettered canvases that describe the view from his studio window. He completed the series in January 1969, and in February started View of Victoria Hospital, Second Series, a huge painting on plywood—almost two-and-a-half by five metres—that depicts the same view in Curnoe’s bright, pictorial style. Scattered across the painting are 120 numbered circles that refer to visual details in the work and various personal connections; these are all explained in an accompanying notebook. There is also an attached audio machine that plays tapes containing verbal descriptions of the scene.

Before Curnoe began this second version, he invited his friend to respond to the scene simultaneously. And so, in February, Chambers took a wide-angle photograph of the view from the roof of Curnoe’s studio, which he used as the basis for his painting. The two artists began to work together, yet quite separately—their respective panels (Curnoe’s twice the size of Chambers’s) were carefully positioned back-to-back so that no direct comparisons could be made.

They worked together for almost four months, until Chambers took ill and was booked into Victoria Hospital. He was diagnosed with leukemia in July 1969 and given only a few months to live. He continued working on the painting alone in his own studio and finished it, seemingly against all odds, in the late summer or early fall of 1970. This focused determination kept him going, in fact, for eight more years. Something of that incredible resolve can be sensed in Victoria Hospital, although the image is altogether more complex than that. It evokes, in a fixed moment in time, both a resonant past and an uncertain future.

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