Pride of Place

Since relocating to the Golden Triangle from LoDo last fall, the William Havu Gallery (formerly the 1/1 Gallery) has greatly expanded its stable of artists. Among the recently snagged talents are those of husband-and-wife painting team Tracy and Sushe Felix, whose latest efforts are featured in the captivating exhibit New Work by Felix & Felix.

Havu's elegant gallery, the work of the Denver architectural firm of Humphries Poli, has the atmosphere of a small museum. But the multiplicity of interior spaces and the use of movable walls has given gallery director Bill Havu some trouble in terms of installation in the past. The handsome and cogent hanging of Felix & Felix indicates that Havu has begun to fully realize the possibilities of his custom-designed space.

Tracy Felix's landscapes are in the entryway and main room, while his wife Sushe's abstracts are in the central and back areas. Scattered around Sushe's paintings and filling the middle of the room are several of her small sculptures of nudes. Havu's decision to give the two artists their separate spaces is a good one, because despite the fact that both share conceptual interests, their final products are only vaguely related. By separating their work, Havu allows viewers to make sense of each artist's singular approach.

Tracy Felix creates readily recognizable landscapes that are characterized by his conventionalization of Western scenery. Trees are suggested by hundreds of dots, rocks are conveyed through big sculptural shapes, clouds are either wisps or blobs. And his palette is simplified, too, limited to the tones expected of a landscape: green, brown, blue and white. (Tracy's version of this small list of hues involves the use of dozens of additional shades, either mixed together or set next to one another).

The reduction and simplification of the scenery has led some to observe that Tracy's landscapes are like cartoons. It's an idea he firmly rejects. "I feel that my work is a continuation of the local tradition of Western landscape painting going all the way back to Bierstadt and Moran and going through the '20s and '30s, '40s and '50s and right up to the present," he says. "I feel like I'm a part of that same group; I feel like my work is not so different from theirs. I'm coming at the landscape from a historic perspective."

Particularly important to Tracy are the artists who were active in New Mexico and in Colorado Springs at mid-century, especially the modernists such as Andrew Dasburg, Ward Lockwood and, "of course, Charlie Bunnell." But Tracy is quick to distinguish what he's doing from the many contemporary landscape painters whose work, according to him, constitutes nothing more than "ripoffs of the past." Tracy's goal, instead, is to create work that refers to local art history but at the same time becomes something fresh and new. "I'm manipulating the tradition in a way that I hope is unique," Tracy says.

Tracy is self-taught as an art historian and an artist. Born in the San Luis Valley in 1957, he moved to Colorado Springs as a boy. In the late 1970s, Tracy, who was already a serious painter, went to work at the Frameworks Gallery in Colorado Springs. The Frameworks, which still exists, was then owned by sculptor Bill Burgess. (Interestingly enough, Burgess has just been picked up by Havu, and there are a handful of his sculptures now on exhibit at the gallery.) Through his job as manager of Frameworks, Tracy met many of the city's best artists, including a core of mostly now-deceased old-timers who originally sparked his interest in exploring the rich legacy of art history in the region.

Tracy developed a real expertise and briefly operated his own gallery, the Tracy Felix Artspace, in Colorado Springs in the mid-1980s. He later became a freelance curator for both historic and contemporary exhibits at the Pioneers Museum and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. During this time, he was developing his peculiar painting style; he achieved his greatest career break when his work was included in the still-important Colorado 1990 exhibit, which was held to great popular and critical acclaim at the Denver Art Museum. (The show was said to be the first of a series of biennials focusing on contemporary art in Colorado, but as it turned out, it was the last major exhibit devoted to locals at the DAM.)

It was in Colorado 1990 that most Denverites first saw Tracy's landscapes, but in the intervening years, his paintings have become familiar to many. His work has been displayed at a number of the city's finest commercial galleries, and his pieces are also included in a number of public and private collections--most notably, the DAM's.

Felix & Felix begins with a pair of Tracy's mountain scenes in oil on board, his exclusive method. On the left is "Mount of the Holy Cross," from 1997; on the right, "Baca-Grant Ranch," from 1991. These two pieces are the only older paintings in the show, everything else having been completed either late last year or earlier this year. The older paintings beg a comparison to the newer ones, which reveals that Tracy's latest efforts do not so much mark a break as a continuation of his longtime artistic concerns. There are some subtle changes. The older paintings are flatter, with a tighter perspective, and the skies feature clouds in a large cluster off to one side. In the newer ones, the clouds are more symmetrically organized in an even pattern across the sky.

Tracy's recently completed paintings are hung together in the main, two-story gallery, just beyond the entrance. This small group of landscapes is dominated by a gigantic vista, the 1998 "Mount Princeton," measuring eight feet across. Tracy has centered the mountain on the horizontal panel. Below are the plains and foothills; above, a cloudy sky. "Mount Princeton" clearly illustrates Tracy's program of updating tradition. Like old-fashioned landscapes, he takes a full-frontal, big-picture view of the subject. In other recent paintings, however, Tracy focuses on a detail, such as the very summit of his chosen peak, as in 1998's "Longs Peak," or his "Mount Neva," from 1999.

Most of Tracy's paintings are based on real scenes, but he also likes to create imaginary landscapes. "Uplifts," done in the last few months, is such a painting. "It's fictional; it's a play on the Boulder Flatirons. I love doing my own version of the landscape. It gives me the feeling of being the great creator," Tracy says, only half kidding.

In addition to the group of large paintings, Tracy has included a quartet of studies that are markedly more expressive. "In my regular paintings, I do a lot of underpainting and overpainting. For the small studies, there's only one layer; they're spontaneously done like sketches," says Tracy. This slapdash method, which works very well, is not the approach taken in the fifth preparatory painting, "Colorado Panorama, Mural Study," which was made in Tracy's regular way. This painting, hung upstairs on the back wall of the mezzanine loft, is exaggeratedly horizontal, being only eighteen inches tall but six feet long. It depicts a cross-section of Colorado from the eastern plains to the western slope, and in spite of its small scale, it conveys the monumentality of the state's topography.

Back down on the ground floor is the other half of Felix & Felix, a large selection of Sushe's efforts in paint and clay. Unlike Tracy, who has created a distinctive style and stuck to it for more than a decade, Sushe has been wildly experimental, going through dozens of different approaches during that period.

Sushe was born in Colorado Springs in 1958. As a child in the 1960s, she studied at the Bemis Art School. She also pursued her art training at the University of Colorado in Boulder and received her bachelor of fine arts from Arizona State University in 1980. She carried on with graduate work at ASU, where she was influenced by two of her art teachers, Daniel Britton and Jim Pyle, "more as people than as artists," Sushe says. Returning to Colorado Springs in 1983, Sushe got a job as a picture framer at the Frameworks Gallery, where future husband Tracy was the manager. Though Tracy and Sushe had known each other casually before, their business relationship soon grew into a personal one, and they married the following year.

Sushe began to exhibit in Denver at Abacus, an early LoDo gallery, and she became an overnight sensation as part of a group of neo-expressionists then emerging in Denver and across the country. Her paintings were figural, often centered on a self-portrait. Her style was wild, with her paintings festooned with glitter, fabric and lace and accented with garishly colored acrylic paints. "My work of fifteen years ago truly reflected where I was as an artist. I was young, just starting out. The paintings were wacky and zany. I just wanted to have a lot of fun," Sushe says.

But like Tracy, Sushe soon became interested in the history of art in the region. In 1989 she began private study with Eric Bransby, an elder painter of the traditional stripe who was a protege in the 1940s of Thomas Hart Benton and of Colorado's own Boardman Robinson. Bransby preached old-fashioned techniques of preparing the ground with gesso, sketching on top of it, laying in undertones and filling in with paint, then finishing it off with varnishes and glazes. Sushe's paintings from the time she worked with Bransby were radically different from her earlier efforts. Instead of raucous depictions of her everyday life, the Bransby-influenced paintings took up mythological and religious themes. In 1990 she even painted a completely traditional crucifixion. Her fans in Denver felt betrayed, and many of her former supporters abandoned her as she metamorphosed.

Then, in 1991, she put on the brakes. "I just decided I was tired of working with Bransby. I had discovered Raymond Jonson, Agnes Pelton, Emil Bisttram and the others of the transcendental painting group," recalls Sushe. With these transcendentalist-inspired pictures, Sushe reclaimed her fans among Denver art collectors, and her work was avidly acquired by, among others, the DAM. However liberating it was for Sushe to cut her ties to Bransby, she learned a lot about age-old painting techniques from him, lessons carried on in her work to the present day.

The transcendentalists who worked in Taos, Santa Fe and even Colorado Springs from the 1930s to the 1950s created abstractions based on the locale that led them to pure abstractions. "I relate to the transcendental feelings about art, the way spiritual beliefs may be connected to the local landscape," Sushe says. Her current paintings continue to express an interest in transcendentalism and are clearly the latest versions of a single pursuit she's carried on since the early '90s.

But as she points out, about a year ago, before she painted any of the works in Felix & Felix, she profoundly changed her painting technique. "I had always seen myself as being primarily into drawing, so all my paintings started out as drawings. I felt that I'd fail if I didn't have a drawing in front of me," Sushe explains. "But I needed a change. I was studying the abstract expressionists and thought that their direct approach seemed freeing, and I tried it. I let the paint direct me. It was intuitive. Every one of these paintings started out as a group of simple abstracts, both geometric and organic, painted directly on the board."

Most of Sushe's latest paintings are in the form of abstractions of trees. In "Rising Moon," a grove of bare trees stands out against a stylized night sky. Sushe has crowded the oil-on-board painting with contradictions. She uses hard lines and softly blended edges; she sets dark earth tones against bright colors and mixes organic shapes with geometric ones. The same juxtapositions are seen throughout Sushe's portion of the exhibit.

In addition to being a painter, Sushe is an accomplished ceramic sculptor; a half dozen of her painted terra cotta nudes supplement her more than thirty paintings and drawings in the show.

Felix & Felix provides in-depth coverage of two of the state's most accomplished artists. But hurry: It closes Sunday.

New Work by Felix & Felix, through May 30 at the William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360.

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