MOVING MOUNTAINS

The husband-and-wife team of Tracy and Sushe Felix emerged from the free-for-all that was 1980s art in Colorado. The Manitou Springs couple was associated with a hip, cartoonlike approach that was part and parcel of the neo-expressionism that dominated the period. But in the meantime, they've changed significantly, taking their own paths to success--Tracy through the refinement of his single-minded view of local landscapes, and Sushe with highly experimental pieces in different media.

The Felixes are well-known to Denver audiences, having shown in town for nearly a decade at a variety of galleries. But for the last several years, each was represented by a different gallery, making it impossible to see their pieces side by side except in their studio. A current exhibit at Inkfish marks the first time in a long time their work has been presented together.

In the new show, Tracy's flattened landscapes and Sushe's abstractions derived from the human figure and nature are intermingled. This approach could have been chancy--one spouse might have suffered at the hands of the other--but here the formidable power of each artist is only enhanced by the inevitable comparisons.

Tracy is first and foremost a painter, as he demonstrates with small gems of mountain scenes rendered in gouache on paper and several thoroughly accomplished oil paintings on masonite. Though he is self-taught, his approach is hardly naive. On the contrary, these works are triumphs of advanced painterly techniques. And the amount of work is staggering: There must be literally thousands of brush strokes in a single picture.

Tracy's profusion of brush work contrasts with the simplified design of his nominally realist landscapes. Because he creates an entire scenic vista on the same flat picture plane, there really isn't a difference in depth of field between the foreground and the background. Instead, the bottom simply corresponds to the place where the foreground would be, the top where the background is expected.

There is an admitted similarity among these closely interrelated landscapes, but since some of them date back to 1993, a definite development in Tracy's artwork is also discernable. Over the past few years his formal arrangements have gotten increasingly more complicated, while his palette has greatly expanded.

For example, in an older painting like the sublime "Pikes Peak North Face," the mountain above timberline is reduced, in several shades of rosy beige, to a horizontal row of geometric forms that fully occupy the middle of the picture. Above is the unified neon blue of the sky, which is interrupted by white clouds shaped like powder puffs, their margins edged in iridescent hues. At the bottom, the tree-covered foothills are conveyed through marks in bright green and two shades of light blue laid over a field of dark midnight blue. This superlimited circle of colors gives Tracy's older paintings a subtlety that moderates the boldness of his mountain forms.

At first glance, recent oils such as the large and resplendent "Long's Peak and the Flat Irons" look the same. But they're really quite different. Tracy still conventionalizes the view, but nature, not geometry, determines the shapes. And the greater color selections are also reminiscent of the natural world. Instead of a seamless single shade in the sky, for example, Tracy creates a luminous effect with various tints of yellow, pink and purple in addition to the blue that predominates. Tracy's expert luminosity is the product of his repeated laying on of transparent glazes, one over another, until an opaque effect is achieved.

If Tracy is one of the top painters in the state, his wife, Sushe, is practically an art movement unto herself, demonstrating a rare ability to create ably as both a painter and a sculptor. Her fabulous small sculptures, in glazed and unglazed ceramic, cast bronze and carved stone, are every bit as good as her large, magisterial paintings.

Sushe's ceramics place her among the finest practitioners in the craft. Some have been stained an earthy red and burnished to a low sheen, while others feature beautiful translations of ancient Chinese glazes. A tobacco-spit brown with copper crystalline development is spectacular; more quietly appealing are several carefully formulated celadon greens. In the small stone carvings, the naturally occurring veins in the marble create added visual interest, just as the stains and glazes do in the ceramics.

A standout here is Sushe's "Reclining Woman," a bronze with a stonelike gray-green patina. The horizontal figure of the woman's body is made up of interlocking planes, while her breasts are quarter-rounds.

Like Tracy, Sushe has also included art that goes back a few years, allowing one to chart the course of her formal program. The older the work, the more recognizable the subject. The human figure, especially the nude, is the chief topic of the earlier sculptures; in the newest work, only the vaguest of references are made to things in the real world.

The specific shapes of Sushe's sculptures are taken from passages in her paintings. A stunning acrylic on masonite, "Mankind's Struggle With Nature," displays a collection of hard-edged, roughly geometric elements that refer to the piece's subject matter--the same approach used in "Reclining Woman." In the painting, the highly abstract figure is outlined with dark colors that heighten the sense of dynamism, an effect seen in many of Sushe's works, which make the subject appear to be turning or even spinning.

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