A Little of Everything

A plethora of shows highlight the diversity of the Colorado aesthetic.

Manitou Springs painter Sushe Felix, whose work became well-known in the mid-1980s, has really been on a roll lately. Every time we turn around, it seems like there's something by her in front of us.

One of her abstracted landscape paintings was chosen as the publicity image for the Colorado Lawyers for the Arts annual fundraising auction, which was held a couple of weeks ago; the painting appeared on both the auction's invitation and its poster. At the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts, a group of major Felix paintings is on display right now. And one of her marvelous ceramic sculptures is currently at the Mizel Museum of Judaica, part of the innumerable fine ceramics exhibitions timed to take place during the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts meeting to be held here next month.

If you really want to see Felix in depth, though, the very strange Altered Landscapes, at the William Havu Gallery, is the place to go. This show pairs Felix with experimental photographer Gunnar Plake. The combination is a rough mix, since the artists do highly individual work in different mediums. But the decision to separate their work with a second, completely unrelated show is a disaster that prevents Altered Landscapes from functioning as a cohesive, singular exhibit.

"Pine Forest," by Sushe Felix, acrylic on board.
"Pine Forest," by Sushe Felix, acrylic on board.
"Dancing Couple," by John Storrs, painted concrete sculpture.
"Dancing Couple," by John Storrs, painted concrete sculpture.

For this reason, it may be best to approach the show as a pair of fine solos instead of the duet that it's billed as. Take in the Felix portion, installed in the north half of the main gallery, first. Then proceed to the Plake part, which itself is split into two sections; most of the show is tucked under the mezzanine, and the rest is arranged upstairs.

As we enter the gallery, a pair of impressive Felix paintings are hung on either side of the walls facing the front door, setting the tone for the rest of her work in this exhibit. Only recently completed, the paintings mark yet another development in Felix's style. They are more clearly based on representational imagery than her pieces of the last couple of years, which were markedly more abstract. But like those earlier paintings, these take a look back in time, to the transcendental painters working in New Mexico and, to a lesser extent, in Colorado Springs in the '40s and '50s.

Like the transcendentalists, Felix adds geometric organization to the landscape. In "Autumn Foliage," an acrylic on board found immediately to our left, Felix represents trees as fluid zigzags with hard edges; these have been painted freehand instead of with tape, as is customary. The palette is rich and vibrant with fall colors such as red, orange and yellow that are set against dark tree limbs painted in black and brown. This is essentially the color scheme in all of the paintings -- a logical choice, as they were done in the last six months, when Colorado's protracted autumn showcased the same colors.

To our left is "Full Moon," an acrylic on board that is a genuine landscape. While "Autumn Foliage" suggests trees with color and geometric shapes, "Full Moon" shows a credible if conventionalized tree, with readable trunk and limbs glowing in the moonlight. The piece is an exception, since most of the others are more akin to "Autumn Foliage."

Particularly impressive is "Pine Forest," another acrylic on board. This is a monumental painting in which a stand of pines has been transformed into a small group of simple, repeated shapes set before a glowing, luminous background.

It may be possible to loosely associate these paintings with Plake's photos, but only in the most superficial of ways. Both sets of work are interested in landscape, and both artists are supreme technicians in their chosen mediums. However, their differences far outnumber their similarities, the most basic and obvious one being the inherent disparity between painting and photography.

Stylistically, Felix takes a retro pose, and her work harks back to her artistic ancestors in the Southwest. Plake, on the other hand, creates futuristic-looking pieces. His color photos are mounted on aluminum sheets, giving them a very techy aesthetic.

Plake hails from Maryland; he is a nationally known photographer whose work is in the collections of many institutions around the country, including the Denver Art Museum. His success is based on a deceptively simple method: He moves his camera as he shoots the landscape. This technique creates a wide variety of effects, depending on how, and in which direction, he shifts the camera.

In some of his photos, the landscape disappears completely and the images appear to be entirely abstract. This is especially true when he directs his viewfinder toward water or the flat plains. In "Lake Powell," a type C color print, the subject of the photo is hard to decipher, making the whole thing look like a smeary color-field painting.

In others, the landscape is recognizable even through the haze of the recorded movement. So close that our eyes water as we try to pull it into focus is the fabulous "Yosemite," also a type C color print. This piece takes up a snow-shrouded scene with trees in the foreground and cliffs in the background.

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