Art Review: Western Art Goes Pop, at William Havu Gallery

"Is Justice Blind," by Tony Ortega.
"Is Justice Blind," by Tony Ortega.

It used to be that the term “Western art” described work that depicted the scenery and lifestyle associated with the western states — typically, mountains, animals, birds and the people who live here. But in recent years, the definition has been expanded to include modern and contemporary art with Western themes. Works of this sort link three presentations on the main level of the William Havu Gallery right now.

The star attraction is Tony Ortega: Hybridity, which highlights the work of this well-known Colorado artist (Ortega has been represented by Havu and its previous iterations for the past thirty years). Associated with the Chicano art movement. Ortega has developed a signature style that combines figuration with abstraction and a whiff of pop art. His classic formula involves scenes of social interaction set in the barrio and populated by faceless figures that are nonetheless recognizable as being Latino. The show at Havu has a wide selection of this type of work, in both acrylics and pastels.

But there is also a suite of hand-colored etchings that represent a different approach, one that’s been dubbed post-Chicano, and with this work, Ortega has established a second signature style for himself. The pieces here are even more pop-art-related than his classic ones, since they loot both high and popular culture for imagery — imagery that Ortega then infuses with Latino content.

Art Review: Western Art Goes Pop, at William Havu Gallery

There’s a brown Superman, a Hispanic Batman and a Mexican-American Captain America, as seen in “Capitán America” (pictured). The painting is done like the cover of a comic book, with a caption running at the top and bottom that reads: “Fighting for Dreamers Latino Immigrants” — just so there’s no confusion about Ortega’s message.

Billy Hassell's "Leaving Vermont."
Billy Hassell's "Leaving Vermont."

Displayed among the Ortegas is Max Lehman, which comprises ceramic sculptures that meld pop and comic-book imagery with references to the Southwest and Mexico. Remarkable and very compelling, these are sophisticated tongue-in-cheek takes on the blending of the distinctly different cultures of these regions. Picking up on the cartoony look of the Lehmans, though in a much more lighthearted way, are the bird paintings that make up Billy Hassell.

On the mezzanine, the mood shifts dramatically with Betsy Margolius, a small display of abstracted depictions of flowers in paint and monotype. Like Ortega, Margolius has had a long relationship with this gallery.

The shows run through September 19 at Havu, 1040 Cherokee Street. Call 303-893-2360 or go to williamhavugallery.com for hours and additional information. 

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