Woodstock Art Gallery
September 22, 2018 – January 25, 2019
What a surprise to discover that highway 401 inspired an art exhibition. For Gary Spearin, noticing the construction of a new overpass at the exit for Woodstock reminded him of the significance of the original bridge for Jack Chambers.
In 1968, standing on that bridge, Chambers took photographs of the road looking west in the direction of his home city of London, Ontario. The photos were the basis for his oil painting 401 Towards London (1968-69) a modern landscape that captured a sense of isolation and dominant big sky. This painting is usually described as ‘iconic’ for good reason, since it helped to shift our idea of representation of life in southwestern Ontario.
Recognizing that the destruction of the bridge signified the loss of context for a significant part of our art history, Spearin contacted the Director of the Woodstock Art Gallery and the result of their collaboration is the current exhibition.
Installed in a small gallery, 401EXIT 232 is a mesmerizing experience. I was drawn into the space by the large work on the central wall facing the entrance. From a distance, it seemed to be a large painting with a grid structure and a repeating rhythmic pattern of V shapes. Actually, this work, 401EXIT232: EAST AND WEST (2018), is a series of digital photographs Spearin took from the new overpass while it was under construction, looking down onto the roadway. The digital prints, mounted on aluminum, capture views of the traffic including some automobiles and other vehicles, but mainly very large trucks of all shapes and colours moving east and west along the 401. For those of us who are frequent drivers on this road it feels very familiar, evoking the tension of three lanes of heavy traffic and even (for me) suggesting the noise of the passing trucks.
The contrast of this intense work with those on the walls to right and left is startling. On our right is the Jack Chambers painting 401 Towards London No. 1 (1968-69) – an expansive view-from-above of a long ribbon of narrow highway, empty except for a lone truck traveling west. In contrast to the ‘noise’ of Spearin’s photo work, Chambers’ painting is calm and quiet. The very high viewpoint gives us an expansive perspective to the horizon where the gentle curve of the earth is tilted slightly to the left. Green fields border the road, with stands of trees on the left and scattered low industrial buildings on the right. Dominating this whole scene is the huge area of sky populated with clouds, filling about two-thirds of the canvas.
How familiar this seems, not only because of the significance of the painting for Canadian art history. This is the country we who live in southwestern Ontario know well: the mainly flat land seeming to stretch forever around us as we pass along, marking locations by the names of towns on exit signs.
On the facing wall is Spearin’s response to Chambers: Paved Silence (2018, oil on canvas). The contrast is telling. Spearin’s is a smaller square canvas, as opposed to Chambers’ large rectangle, with a closer view of the scene that feels more present and active. The highway and bordering landscape move up the canvas to a higher horizon. So despite the view looking down from the bridge, the composition shifts as much upwards as into the scene, making the whole seem closer to us and more urgent, somehow.
The time of year is different, too. The scene is wintery with snow scattered around the fields with the same stand of trees on the left, now leafless. The earth/sky ratio is reversed here and the heavy clouds are a strong presence covering the whole sky except for small breaks that reveal areas of blue. What else has changed in this view? There are more buildings to the right of the highway, though the original industrial buildings remain. But perhaps the most significant difference is the traffic. Chambers saw one truck on the road, and he painted it in such a way that it seems to melt into the asphalt. It does not really stand out. Spearin sees the reality of a modern highway, with lots of vehicles of all sorts. Interesting, though, that he leaves the westward lanes near the bridge bare, traffic visible farther along in the distance. The effect is to make the 401 loom large in our vision, as powerful a force as the dense clouds heavy above our heads. This is the “Paved Silence” of the title. What we see suggests a very active landscape, but in capturing this moment Spearin renders it soundless, an object of meditation that is an update of Chambers’ 401 Towards London No. 1.
Chambers had a powerful vision in 1968. In a way, his is a very essential statement. The details are small features in a very large, encompassing world, just as we are tiny individuals on the face of this earth. Paved Silence positions us closer to it all, such that we feel very much a part of the scene, able to sense the cold and, I would say, the hissing speed of the east-bound traffic about to pass below us. Fifty years after Chambers, in the traditional oil paint medium, Spearin acutely represents a new reality.
Consider the other works in 401EXIT232. They bring Spearin’s sensibility into close focus. Working with digital prints, he focuses on the powerful grid of close views of passing traffic discussed above in EAST AND WEST. In the other two works, his focus is the numbers of the highway series: 400, 401, 402, 403 to 417, so familiar to those of us who drive in this part of the country. Spearin depicted the numbers themselves in drawings that he photographed and then used in complex overlays of photos of surfaces and colours of today’s automobiles. The grid arrangement of these photos in 400series is surprisingly varied because of the way the fuzzy quality of the numbers and the very different backgrounds suggest fast movement and glancing views.
Spearin takes this exhibition out of the gallery and onto the highways with the final work, DRIVE, a thirty-second video of the 400series that is screened on video monitors at twenty ONroute travel information rest stops on the 400 series of highways. Just as the numbers flip by us when we drive the 400 highways, so with this video we have the experience of the whole series of numbers, as we take a rest from the driving.
This is a brilliant idea that was made possible by the collaboration of the artist, the Woodstock Art Gallery under the direction of Mary Reid (Director/Curator), and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. In fact, the Ministry was a significant player in this project. When made aware of the significance for art history of the highway overpass that was being replaced, Gary Spearin was given access to the new bridge while it was under construction for his photographs. Importantly for art history, a plaque commemorating Jack Chambers’ work was installed in the new bridge, with an agreement that the plaque would be maintained in the future.
It is heartening to know that the personnel of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation engaged so positively with this project. It is also our good fortune that the Art Gallery of Ontario agreed to lend Jack Chambers’ masterwork 401 Towards London No. 1 to the Woodstock Art Gallery for this exhibition. Studying this painting up close, comparing it with Gary Spearin’s energetic, inspired response, makes the story of art come alive.
Thanks to this artist for recognizing the significance of shifting exit 232 and his determination to preserve the context of Chambers’s work. In the process, Gary Spearin has moved us along with him into new, contemporary experiences of art and life in southwestern Ontario, fifty years later.
Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University
Note: Images were provided courtesy of Woodstock Art Gallery, Woodstock, Ontario