Harry and Jessie Webb: Artists in Vancouver’s Jazz Age captures a bygone era

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      Harry and Jessie Webb: Artists in Vancouver’s Jazz Age
      At the West Vancouver Museum until December 6

      Harry and Jessie Webb: Artists in Vancouver’s Jazz Age is not so much a blast from the past as a melancholy riff on a soprano sax. It is a record of a particular time and place, a reminder of the interwoven aspirations of visual artists, poets, and musicians in Vancouver in the mid 20th century.

      The beat-inflected modernist narrative that unfolds in this small exhibition at the West Vancouver Museum is that of the married artists of the show’s title. Harry Webb and Jessie Hetherington met in 1949 while studying at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University) and were influenced by the same teachers and mentors and inspired by the same urban themes. As the show instructs us, their oil paintings, gouache drawings, and linocuts also reveal the impact of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Arshile Gorky.

      During the 1950s, the Webbs led a “bohemian” life in Vancouver and on the North Shore. Dedicated to art-making, they were poor and moved frequently from one low-rent apartment to the next. As reported in The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb (Mother Tongue), written by their daughter Adrienne Brown, they read the beat poets, drank cheap red wine, and made their own shoes. They wrote poetry, too, and played Dave Brubeck and Charlie Parker on their “high-fidelity” Heathkit sound system.

      Befitting their impoverished circumstances and lack of studio space, they also produced small, handmade prints on paper.

      The largest number of works on view here are “progressive linocuts”, so named because of the method of using only one piece of linoleum, not many, in the application of multiple colours to the print. The lino surface is progressively engraved or cut away, the artist-printer working from the lightest colour to the darkest.

      Harry and Jessie’s early linocuts are similar to each other in their use of floating or loosely jointed abstracted forms, the picture plane partitioned into off-kilter rectangles, wedges, and circles, sometimes augmented by straight or squiggly lines and flecks of pattern. Early on, their tonal range is similar, too, the colours flat and fairly muted. Jessie’s West End Waterfront, for instance, employs midnight blue with a dull russet and a pale creamy orange. Her seemingly nonrepresentational forms are, on closer viewing, suggestive of boats, stairs, wharves, and fish heads.

      Harry’s gouache drawings use more highly keyed colours, but always swimming in a sea of deep and opaque black, as seen in an untitled 1952 work and 1953’s Japanese Jazz. Evidently influenced by surrealism, his process included laying down passages of colour on the paper, then intuitively swishing black over and around them, so that images and symbols seem to emerge from the darkness as if directly from the unconscious.

      For different reasons, neither Harry nor Jessie was able to sustain a visual-arts career. What is most interesting about this show is not the artwork (the Webbs’ individual talents are very modest) but rather the context of time and place and the artists’ involvement in cultural enterprises like the short-lived pm, an art and literary journal, and the original incarnation of the Cellar Jazz Club.

      The biggest and most striking work in the show is Harry’s highly abstracted mural of jazz musicians, carved in thick linoleum, which hung behind the bar at the Cellar in its early days on East Broadway. The Trio is an energetic marker of a time when Vancouver was emerging as a cultural presence, when postwar optimism was made edgy by the beat generation’s existential critique. Everything seemed possible—and nothing at all.