If Stephen Chambers were a poet or a novelist, people would say he has a distinctive ‘voice’. I think I first saw his work when he was on a shortlist of seven for the Jerwood Painting prize in 1999, and have been looking out for his work ever since.
What first attracted me was his inspired use of colour: flat, uniformly dense across the whole canvas, utterly unwilling to nudge or beguile you into looking at this or that aspect of the picture. And then the lack of perspective, the mystery of it all. How can this be an interior? Perhaps it’s a still life?
The title presumably refers to the exquisite pots lined up on the rungs on the ladder like beads on an abacus. There’s no past or future in this picture, no clues as to how or why the objects got there and nothing to indicate that anything will change. Some of Chambers’ paintings have been described as ‘an atmosphere waiting eternally for something to happen’. Is this what the world looks like when no one is looking? Except that it is no longer an empty room, when we are present, looking in.
It is paradoxical that Chambers' work, noted for its stillness and restraint, has inspired dance works for the Royal Ballet, where choreography demands constant change and animation. This image is from This House Will Burn, Covent Garden 2001. Chambers co-designed the set with Jon Morrell.
It’s said that for Stephen Chambers the scope and possibilities of art were enlarged by seeing the work of the Umbrian artist Piero della Francesca. This is his The Baptism of Christ painted between 1448 and 1450. It’s based on a story written down 2,000 years ago, one which has been told and read across continents ever since.
A photograph catches a fleeting moment but the moments captured here are not fleeting. The bird overhead, the Holy Spirit, appears to be motionless, echoing the shape of the cloud. The people are in communion with God yet alert, engaged in the present moment.
The painting is known for its deep stillness and restraint.
nationalgallery.org.uk for the dell Francesco painting
independent.co.uk/.../great-works-the-baptism-of-christ for a review by Tom Lubbock