Of all the works of Jack Chambers (1931–1978), no painting better encapsulates the artist’s perceptual realism—the term he coined in his 1969 essay of the same name to describe his aspirations and methods—than 401 Towards London No. 1. The genesis of the image has become legend: Chambers was driving in Ontario, eastbound on Highway 401 from London. In his rear-view mirror he saw the expansive and perfectly harmonious landscape captured here. It was for him an epiphany, a “wow moment” that inspired him to resume painting after a significant break during which he was dissatisfied with the medium. He later photographed and then transferred the image to the large-scale panel.


Jack Chambers, 401 Towards London No. 1, 1968–69
Jack Chambers, 401 Towards London No. 1, 1968–69
Oil on wood, 183 x 244 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

“Perceptual realism” is Chambers’s term for what art should be—that is, a profound reflection on primary sensory experience, not simply a reproduction of it. As if to show that he was not simply copying what the eye and camera could see, Chambers changed many details during the long inception of this work, not least the signposting on the highway. He maintained a distance from the mechanical precision of the photograph, resulting in a sublime unreality that emanates from this image.


This Spotlight is excerpted from Jack Chambers: Life & Work by Mark A. Cheetham.

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