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A Little of Everything

"Pine Forest," by Sushe Felix, acrylic on board.

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.

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.

Since Felix and Plake are an odd pairing, splitting up their work may not have been such a bad idea after all. In the end, the failure of Altered Landscapes may also be its success. At the very least, the exhibit provides many diversions in the form of excellent work by two accomplished artists.


In Boulder, at the CU Art Galleries on the campus of the University of Colorado, there is also some excellent -- if diverse -- work on view. Like the show at Havu, the high quality of the inclusions more than make up for any organizational trouble in the particular exhibits.

There are three shows being presented simultaneously at CU. In the front, in the small entry gallery, is Eyes Wide Open: the art of viewing art. In the more spacious central space is A dewdrop poised atop a leaf of grass...Southeast Asian Ceramics. And filling the capacious galleries in the back is Recent Acquisitions.

CU gallery director Susan Krane oversaw Eyes Wide Open and dewdrop, which were organized by teams of graduate students. The contents of both are drawn exclusively from the Colorado Collection, which is the name given to CU's art collection. Krane put together Recent Acquisitions by herself, limiting the show to artwork that has been accepted into the Colorado Collection during the last five years -- a time frame that coincides with her tenure at CU.

According to Krane, plans are still on track for the future construction of a university art museum, something badly needed on the Boulder campus, particularly in light of the large permanent collection. The proposed facility, which is not yet official and still needs to clear a formidable funding hurdle at the Statehouse, will likely be built, in stages, on the site of the Sibell-Wolle Fine Arts Building, which currently houses the art department alongside the CU Galleries.

Eyes Wide Open is the product of professor Claire Farago's fall 1999 graduate seminar, Theories in Art History; the fourteen students in the class are listed as co-curators. It is a difficult show to follow, even with the handsome published catalogue that accompanies it.

The curatorial approach is theoretically up-to-the-minute, having a contemporary postmodern slant. This approach takes away the authoritative character of art history (which is made up of dates and styles and movements) and replaces it with open-ended concepts like the exhibit's subtitle, the art of viewing art -- an idea so broad and malleable that anything goes. As a result, this exhibit and others like it tend to veer toward the meaningless.

Then again, that may be the point, as indicated by the introductory essay in the catalogue penned by Farago and student Allison Furge. They begin their discussion by quoting Gregory Amenoff, one of the artists in the show, who says, in effect, that art is visual, and he just wants to look at it and not think about it.

Amenoff's piece, "Final Hours," a color lithograph from 1986, is hung just inside to the right. Amenoff has filled the picture with quirky, naturalistic shapes, and his somber palette is dark and earthy. It is balanced by an even more idiosyncratic print, Philip Guston's 1980 lithograph "Curtain," which has been hung opposite, immediately to the left.

It's easy to see how the Amenoff relates to the Guston: Both were breaking away from abstraction and in the direction of representation, a movement in the winds of the 1980s, when these lithographs were created. But how are they associated with the fine-in-its-own-right seventeenth-century "Vision of the Magdalene," an etching by French artist Charles LeBrun that is hung across the room? Or what about the Goya etchings from his "Los Disparates" ("The Follies") series? Why are they here? We'll never know, but then again, who cares? At least we're provided with the rare chance to see them.

If Farago's class took a postmodern departure from standard exhibition practice, dewdrop does it the old-fashioned way, with solid art history. This show was put together with the assistance of CU art history professor Ronald Bernier and a crew of nine student researchers.

The show is made up of selected Southeast Asian ceramics from a large gift to the Colorado Collection by Richard and Brenda Bodner. The Bodners collected wares produced in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam; most date from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, but some pieces are even older. These ceramics, many functional in form, were made to sell and were shipped along the medieval markets connected to the Silk Road that led in and out of China. Southeast Asian ceramics have long been seen as the inferior country cousins of the great Chinese and Japanese pots to which they've been unfairly compared. But the distinctive melding of Oriental and Occidental influences in Southeast Asian ceramics is a compelling feature. Surely this is why, in recent times, there has been a greater appreciation for them.

 

The Middle Eastern influence is clearly seen in the gestural yet repetitive decorations that adorn many of the pots, bowls and vases in this show. The style is obviously Islamic in origin, as is the case not only with the ceramics from Moslem Myanmar, but also with those made in Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Recent Acquisitions is by far the largest of the three shows at CU, comprised of nearly 150 pieces. "I hung everything salon-style, because I wanted to include as many things as possible," Krane says.

Since printmaking is a real strength of the Colorado Collection, it's not surprising that many of the best pieces in this show are prints. Among the standouts is a James Ensor etching from 1886 called "Christ Mocked," which looks newer than its date. Several prints, undated here but which are surely from the 1930s, are also of note, such as William Gropper's "Diogenes" and Raphael Soyer's "Untitled."

Most of the prints are more recent, dating from the second half of the twentieth century and featuring some big names such as Robert Motherwell, Elsworth Kelly and Robert Indiana.

These pieces are from several substantial collections of modernist prints that were donated in their entirety to the Colorado Collection, including those of Mark and Polly Addison, Tamara and Ed Bryant and the Johns Manville Corporation. In addition, thirty Philippe Halsman photographs were donated by Allen and Kathy Goldstone, both of whom are CU graduates. The Halsmans, a series of emblematic 8x10 celebrity portraits in black and white, have been hung in a crowded cluster, but the collection really deserves an exhibit by itself.

There are only a few small three-dimensional objects on display, but one of them, "Dancing Couple," a painted concrete sculpture by John Storrs, is tremendous and among the finest things in the show. Though it is quite small, it has a charismatic quality that makes it appear almost monumental in its visual effect.

This trio of shows is worth seeing, because among them, there is something for everyone. Plus, it's always a treat to take in choice selections from the Colorado Collection, which does not have a permanent home and therefore rarely has a place to display its treasures. That is, at least until that proposed but unfunded museum is built.


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