Springtime in the Rockies

Contemporary paintings based on the Western landscape fill Havu.

The signs of spring are everywhere: Flowers are blooming; the leaves are coming out on the trees, and the 2002-2003 art season is officially over.

That means we now find ourselves plunged neck deep into the off-season. But don't be misled by that designation; worthwhile exhibits will continue all the way through this fall, when the next season gets under way. There are differences, though, between the off-season and the on. For example, off-season shows tend to run lots longer than those in-season. And group shows are more often the main course off-season, while solos are the standard fare in-season.

Fitting the description of an off-season show like a glove (being both a long-running exhibit and a wide-ranging group show) is Above & Below, which opened last week at the William Havu Gallery. The title refers to sky and land; nearly everything in it is a contemporary take on the tradition of the Western landscape.

"Lightning," by Sandra Kaplan, oil on canvas.
"Lightning," by Sandra Kaplan, oil on canvas.
"Gateway to the Rockies," by Tracy Felix, oil on board.
"Gateway to the Rockies," by Tracy Felix, oil on board.

Above & Below starts off with the work of regionally famous painter Tracy Felix. Though he lives in the wilds of Manitou Springs, Felix is well known in Denver because he's regularly exhibited around here since the late 1980s. Felix has had a very good career run so far. As a result, his paintings have been shown at several top galleries over the decades (here at Havu, they've been on display for only the last four years) and can be found in many public and private collections up and down the Front Range, including those of the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Pueblo's Sangre de Cristo Art Center.

Felix has developed a highly idiosyncratic style in which he simplifies the Western scenery into a somewhat abstracted representation done in a limited and essentially naturalistic palette. In a Felix painting, the peaks, the canyons, the valleys and all the other features --topographic and astral -- are transformed into a series of abstract shapes, many of which are repeated, like the triangles that stand in for the trees on the mountainsides. Many of the other shapes morph out of one another to convey the idea, if not exactly the image, of objects. This is how Felix creates the various virtually indescribable shapes that make up his clouds.

Though most representational painters employ photography at some stage of the process, Felix emphatically does not, which is hardly surprising considering how little the paintings look like the actual landscapes they purport to illustrate. And many of them are not depictions of any actual place, anyway, but instead come right out of Felix's imagination. Again, that's no surprise, considering those triangular trees seen in some of them -- not to mention the rectangular clouds seen in others.

The conventionalized vistas glimpsed in a Felix painting have an almost cartoon-like character, but that's hardly the artist's intention. Unlike many other painters of his generation, cartoons are not one of Felix's influences; instead, his paintings refer to the art of the transcendentalist movement as it manifested itself in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico from the 1930s to the 1950s. Felix is a self-taught art historian who has looked carefully at the work of transcendentalist artists such as Andrew Dasburg, Ward Lockwood, Raymond Jonson and especially Charles Bunnell. The influence of Bunnell is particularly felt in the most thoroughly abstracted of the Felix landscapes.

The Felix paintings, all done in oil on board, are hung in the first space inside Havu's front door and in the adjacent space. Facing the entry are a pair of Felix paintings, which, though they are immediately recognizable as his -- there are the conventionalized shapes based on natural forms painted with the limited palette -- they are also clearly different from his classic style pieces and different from one another, too.

On the left is "Dancing Aspens," an uncharacteristic close-up of a grove of trees: a blue spruce and, as could be expected, a stand of aspens. In this painting, the artist transfers the repeated triangles, representing trees seen in the classic landscapes, into similarly repeated lozenge shapes that suggest leaves. On the right is "Gateway to the Rockies," in which the vaguely naturalistic shapes that Felix uses in one of his classic pieces are turned into non-naturalistic volumetric shapes à la Bunnell.

Adjacent and opposite are a couple of those classic landscapes, "The Road to Taos" and "Red Rocks Amphitheater." "The Road to Taos" is pure Felix, from the twin peaks cast in shadows in the background to the fantastic tepee village in the foreground. "Red Rocks Amphitheater" is a study for a mural that was proposed for the new Red Rocks Visitor Center. Much to Felix's disappointment, it was rejected, which is unfortunate, because it would have suited that new building very well.

An interesting feature seen in these classic paintings is the incredible three-dimensional illusion that Felix is able to achieve in them. The scenes appear to fall away from the picture plane into deep imaginary space, while the features meant to seem closest to the viewer, like the scrub vegetation at the bottom, appear to pop up above the surface of the picture. However, a quick check while looking from the side reveals that Felix's paintings are essentially flat, with no raised areas, though they are pretty brushy.

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