Outside In

At Havu's, nature and the landscape provide the inspiration for a group show of contemporary paintings.

Landscapes have been a popular subject in the fine arts for thousands of years, but in just the last century, they have become even more appealing to Colorado artists because our local scenery is so visually emphatic. Between the mountains and the plains, the West has practically cornered the market on picturesque.

Many local artists continue to make landscape paintings in the representational styles, such as realism and impressionism, that were first developed in the nineteenth century. But others have translated the landscape into contemporary art by employing some kind of abstraction -- either reducing and simplifying the view, or exaggerating it.

More than any of the other top-tier contemporary galleries in Denver, the William Havu Gallery is a center for this kind of art, having pushed new approaches to landscape painting since the early 1990s, when it was called the 1/1 Gallery and was situated in LoDo. Over the years, Havu has showcased dozens of artists who've created updated landscapes. The current show, Landmark, which brings together a distinguished trio of well-known painters with established reputations, is Havu's latest offering on the topic.

"Santa Monica Mountains Burn," by Jeremy Hillhouse, oil on canvas.
"Santa Monica Mountains Burn," by Jeremy Hillhouse, oil on canvas.

Despite their common interest in the landscape, each artist -- Tracy Felix, Jeremy Hillhouse and Greg Navratil -- takes a distinctly different path to convey it, and the resulting works are tremendously varied. So it wasn't as easy as it might have seemed to make Landmark work as a cogent, unified show. But gallery director Havu has pulled it off, mostly by giving each artist a discrete space, connected but separate from the others. In this way, as the show unfolds, it becomes something like a conversation on the nature of landscape painting, with three very different points of view.

Felix, who is from Manitou Springs, comes first, with a number of his classic mountain paintings and a handful of smaller, more experimental pieces. His recognizable work has a playful quality, but he has denied the widely held belief that comic strips have been an inspiration for him. Instead he sees Colorado and New Mexico art from the early to mid-twentieth century as his principle source of inspiration. Particularly significant for Felix are the artists associated with the Broadmoor Academy and its successor, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. For more than two decades, he has studied and collected such works. Nevertheless, his style is nothing like the regionalism he admires.

Facing us as we enter the gallery is the monumental and majestic "Ouray, Colorado," an oil on board. The work is signature Felix: The representational elements and details of the valley have been meticulously recorded, but the pictorial elements -- the cliffs, the trees, the peak and the clouds -- are abstract. The scene is at once recognizable and unrealistic.

A few of the paintings in this show indicate new directions for Felix, though. In a pair of works, both called "Ambitious Spruce" (one was displayed at the Metro Center for the Visual Arts last spring), he creates closeups of the forest instead of the sweeping vistas he ordinarily prefers. These paintings are dark and moody. Two other newer paintings, "Front Range Peak" and "Peak," take an almost opposite route. In these, he has exaggerated the rectilinear character of the landscape and stripped the scenery of details. The influence of Charles Bunnell, a Colorado Springs modernist who died in the 1970s, is apparent in both. Bunnell, an artist whose posthumous reputation is on the way up, has been of interest to Felix for a long time, and I wouldn't be surprised to see more Felix paintings along these same Bunnellian lines in the future.

Next up are the almost completely abstract paintings by Hillhouse, who was director of the Denver Art Museum's design department until retiring last year. In that job, Hillhouse had been responsible for the design of many of the most significant exhibits at the DAM, most recently the Impressionism show and the Matisse show. Amazingly, before Hillhouse was hired in 1972, the DAM didn't have a design department. Hillhouse had to create one.

Although he has been painting for nearly thirty years, Hillhouse has only rarely exhibited. Gallery director Havu points out that while he has included Hillhouse's paintings in group shows before, he's never presented such a large number of important pieces by him at the same time. "I see this show as his reintroduction into the Denver art world, a second debut," says Havu. "After he's worked so long at the museum, he now has time to focus on his career as a painter."

Hillhouse is interested in evoking the landscape in his paintings without being too literal. He has written that his paintings are about "thinking" about the landscape, as opposed to the landscape itself. Often composed of multi-panel compositions, these works suggest the landscape with extreme economy, sometimes using just a single horizontal line to separate the land from the sky, or a meandering one representing a stream as seen from above. Otherwise, the paintings are abstract-expressionist, with smears, drips and smudges used to carry out broad color fields that have been isolated from one another by the lines. Some have obviously been painted together, as color fields cross from one panel to another. In others, the panels have been painted separately and have no shared features with the sections to which they are connected. This modular approach becomes a visual element, either subtly or emphatically, depending on Hillhouse's whim.

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