1971 ‘Her new painterly expression’

A Dream in the Eye: The Complete Paintings and Collages of Phyllis Webb
edited by Stephen Collis

Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2023
$59.95  /  9781772014747

Reviewed by Jane Frankish
A Dream in the Eye: The Complete Paintings and Collages of Phyllis Webb, edited by Stephen Collis, is a sumptious presentation of Phyllis Webb’s visual output, accompanied by an insightful introduction by the editor. This book contains an artist statement and an essay by the artist. There is also a collection of poems by Diana Hayes, and essays by Laurie White and Betsy Warland. Included in the front matter of the book is an extract from the poem, “Following,” by the artist, a Governor General’s award-winning poet:

That which is beautiful in Botticelli


gathers again in women:

woman in white,

a lily,

Phyllis Webb at a reading at the Salt Spring Library in 2013. Photo Diana Hayes

a dream in the eye

of Botticelli.

This verse, from which the title of this book derives, raises the question of what it is that might be beautiful ‘in’ Botticelli. The answer could guide us towards an interpretation of the paintings and collages presented in this volume. The clue lies outside of the quotation, in the first verse of the poem,

Botticelli — I say it and

the chord breaks

into its component parts

   la li la li[1]

What is beautiful in Bo-ti-cel-li, is the sound – the intonation and rhythm. It is this sound, that ‘disintegrates’ and ‘gathers again,’ in the image of a ‘woman in white’ and of ‘a lily,’ and yet remains ‘a dream in the eye’ of the artist – a continuation of the artistic imagination.

Webb was an acclaimed poet who stopped writing and began making visual art. Stephen Collis notes that Webb began to paint only after words had “abandoned” her. In her Artist Statement (2002), Webb says, “I paint, I say, I used to write, I say, but now I paint, it makes me happy,” In her essay, Might have-Been: The Tedious Shores (1993), Webb recounts her entry into visual art. In 1993, she had just bought a camera and began taking photographs, when she had something of an epiphany, “At this time I also saw paintings, wild sprays of colour in my head, fantastic patterns. Do I have a brain tumour or should I take up painting?”

Webb suggests that there is a connection between her writing and her painting. She points to ‘process’ as being common to her practice, “I hesitate to see all this activity as anything more than pure process.” Collis, in turn, asks, “What is carried over from one practice to another? What remains of the old practice in the new?” He unearths some interesting clues,

“Webb’s paintings often investigate the vacated space of language – sometimes figured through her use of the crossword puzzle grid as well as the mechanics of printing as seen in the use of plastic bath mat that she pressed into the surface of the painted canvas,”

Collis seems to imply that it is the essence of Webb’s poetry that remains in the abstractions of her new painterly expression. He describes her work as being, “colour run riot, free of representation, having nothing to “tell” us, other than a flickering moment between eye and hand that moves freely on the canvas.”

Oops, Pops, USA, 2000

Webb and Collis are friends and he has an intimate knowledge of her artistic journey. He reveals that he has had her largest canvas “lighting my living room for the better part of a decade.” This painting is called Oops, Pops, USA, 2000 and is, in Collis’ words, “[a] bright cadmium-yellow expanse, crossed by a few dark intersecting lines that branch organically, splashes of red, blue and aquamarine, and with small found images collaged into its surface here and there.” He sees many modernist references in this work and suggests that Webb’s paintings are generally about, “perception and representation, about texture and colour, about reference and allusion, and the possibilities of the visual medium.”

The three colour spreads in the front matter of the book encapsulate the range of Webb’s visual approaches. The first untitled 2008 painting is a geometric abstraction combining angular delineations and soft painterly textures. The second, Observatorium II 1994, is a collage, made from architectural photographs. It deals with both surface patterns and the represented space.  The third spread is an expressionistic painting with hints of landscape imagery. The title of this painting, The Frozen Sea Within, 2002, leads the viewer from the outside view towards an interior realm of emotions. It seems that Webb painting to investigate the conditions and contradictions within painting itself. Collis, nevertheless, recognizes the openness and adventure of her painterly engagement when he states that “she wanted to see what she could see.”

The Frozen Sea Within, 2002

Collis also points to Webb’s intertwining of life and art. With reference to the poem, “Continuum,”[2] he tells the reader how she sent a wire to the Prime Minister urging him to reconsider Canada’s stance on the Vietnam War. Collis observes, “it is an event in a poem, and at the same time, an event in the real world: poem and world are entangled,”  Webb’s poetic and political gestures merge and Collis suggests that an analogous ‘entanglement,’ is present in the abstractions of her paintings and collages, “A similar gesture, it could be argued, occurs in the painting, Vote Green, 2001 where Webb entangles geometric and collaged forms … with more organic brush strokes and colours.” As exemplified in the works reproduced in the front matter, Webb’s art is full of many such entanglements – hard-edge and painterly approaches, surface patterns and the depth of represented space, gestural abstractions and landscape imagery, the outer world and the interior realm of emotions.

Laurie White develops a similar insight in her essay titled, “The Phenomenal Close-Up: Abstraction as Enmeshment in Phyllis Webb’s Photocollage.” White suggests that Webb’s Fulford Harbour Series III 1993 – 94 echoes Siefried Kracauer’s idea that photography both records and fractures the world. She notes that for people who take the Gulf Island ferries at the Fulford Harbour terminal, “the anxiety of being sufficiently early gives way to waiting, time begins to pass more slowly and natural boredom induces heightened awareness of the shapes and textures of the surroundings. The Fulford Harbour Series treats the viewer to familiar patterns and spatial representations, while bringing a new perspective on the banality of the view.

In extracts from ‘From Gold in the Shadow: Twenty-Two Ghazals and a Cento for Phyliss Webb (2021), Diana Hayes gives the reader a poetic account of Webb’s vision by responding to the artist’s colour and form in verse. In poem VI, Hayes considers Spirit Mountain 2001,

I return to Spirit Mountain while your brushes mix the paint

Manganese blue and rain on a cumulus day

Poem XIV seems to refer to two paintings High Noon – Changing Day Series #5 1997 and Midnight Blue, Remember Roy KiyookaChanging Day Series #11 1997. Hayes infuses this poem with a sense of place and time. Webb is at home, she is wearing a ring, her cat is there in the sunlight, one painting is drying on an easel, the other is abstracted into the space of the words. Hayes describes Webb taking a walk on the beach. The paintings themselves are blue, blue sea, blue sky, with deep horizontals and horizons. The poem presents Webb walking between the two paintings, a third image emerges

A triptych? Between canvasses, you walk the beach, polishing stones,

Ennui has stolen the day, run off with the colours of dawn.

In her essay, ‘The Spirit of Inquiry’ (1993, revised 2008), Betsy Warland interprets Webb’s transition, from poetry to painting, as part of a Buddhistic inquiry about the self. She suggests that Webb found herself asking, “Do I exist if I am not a poet?”  Warland also writes of Webb’s relationship with her mother, who, in spite of not being highly educated, had a keen interest in language and grammar. Warland reveals that Webb referred to Stephen Spender’s idea that we all “secretly write for one person,” and admitted that she writes for her mother. Warland posits a second question, “Do I exist if I am not a daughter?”

Webb herself, writes of a “Buddhistic withdrawal of identity” in which she appears to have brought about a new self – bent on taking risks, taking challenges and, ultimately, just being happy! Webb suggests that the change from revered poet, to fledgling artist, gave her back “something like the pure vision I had as a child” and Warland elucidates this transformation by citing Zen monk and teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities: in the expert’s mind there are a few.”

A Dream in the Eye reflects deeply personal connections between Webb and a circle of artists and writers who were her friends. The book honours Phyllis Webb’s artistic vision, her dream of life, expressed in a legacy of paintings and collages.

[1] Webb Phyllis and John F Hulcoop. Peacock Blue : The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb. Talonbooks 2014. p.466

[2] Webb Phyllis and John F Hulcoop. Peacock Blue : The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb. Talonbooks 2014. p.451

Untitled, 1999


Jane Frankish

Jane Frankish is a writer of poetry and prose. She holds a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies from SFU, a Masters in Library and Information Studies from UBC, and works as a librarian at Vancouver Public Library. [Editor’s note: Jane Frankish has reviewed books by Meghan Kemp-Gee, Bruno Cocorocchio, Eileen Casey & Jeanne Cannizzo and Jenny Boychuk for The British Columbia Review. She has also published a popular memoir, Chennai: A Place in Between, and Letter from the Pandemic in BCR.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster



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