Though Recent Works, which opened last weekend at the William Havu Gallery, is billed as a group show, it's been installed as four distinct presentations, and thus is more like a quartet of solos. This is for the best, because each of the artists has an individual approach, and they aren't thoroughly compatible with one another.
The show begins in the main space with a series of recent pieces by Sushe Felix, a well-respected Manitou Springs-based painter who's been exhibiting in Denver since the late 1980s. For this show, Felix has created fifteen closely associated mixed-media-on-board paintings. All of them are abstractions based on landscape and still-life scenes.
"Essentially, all the paintings are the same," Felix points out. "More than any other show I've done at Havu, really more than any other show ever, this is the most unified series of paintings I've done."
Like her previous work, these paintings, from a series called "East Meets West," reflect the influence of early-twentieth-century abstraction, particularly transcendentalism. The compositions are made up of a series of abstract episodes that seem to churn into one another, leading the eyes of the viewer to circle around the edges of the picture. The initial visual draw in this series is a white circle that appears in each of the paintings. "I love circles; they help me to keep the paintings abstract," Felix says. "I don't think of the circles as representing the moon or something like that, but since these are nature-based abstractions, people are going to think of them that way, and that's all right."
There are several other elements that connect these paintings to one another, most notably the Chinese characters and Chinese-derived depictions of stylized flowers and trees. Felix acknowledges, however, that she's mostly been looking at the work of American abstractionists from the 1930s and '40s -- artists from Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere -- rather than Oriental art. "I'm very uneducated in Asian art, in these paintings," she says. "I was going for a certain look, and I wasn't scholarly about it at all." Even the Chinese characters are meant to have a decorative role as opposed to a narrative one. "I'm very fascinated by the way the Chinese characters look. The ones I used either repeat the title of the piece or describe it, and there aren't little secrets or messages in them. They're just used for their design."
The genesis of this series took place a few years ago, when Felix found herself becoming more and more interested in the architecture, design sense, food, dress, movies and languages of Asia. At the time, she did a series of Oriental-flavored pastel drawings, which led to a group of Japanese-inspired ceramic geisha sculptures. In these small tabletop pieces, Felix created highly abstract figures that broadly refer to the geishas through the inclusion of a fan or by the handling of the hair. According to Felix, the geisha sculptures, in turn, led directly to the new paintings. (The sculptures are included at Havu, but unfortunately, they've been marooned upstairs rather than being paired with the pieces downstairs.)
All of the paintings feature the same accomplished technique, and all are beautifully crafted. The visual activity happens within a broken border, with hard-edged, stepped margins that roughly follow the contours of the frame. In a painting such as the meticulous "Still Life With Sun Flowers," crisply painted passages are linked by, and juxtaposed with, gauzy ones. In addition, half the painting is bright and half is dark. These contrasts and others -- as in the use of hot shades against cool ones -- create a visual tension.
"Sun Flowers" is one of the smallest of the paintings of many sizes that Felix has in the show, but the same approach to color and composition is seen in all of them, including the largest one here, the wonderful "Spring Garden."
Gallery director Bill Havu has filled most of the remainder of the main space with the work of Felix's husband, Tracy Felix. He has also exhibited around town since the late '80s and has also worked in response to the local pioneers of modernism. "I've always been influenced by the early regional artists," he says. "But lately, the influence of Bunnell has been more important. I like the way he took the landscape in and out of abstraction." Felix is referring to the late Charles Bunnell, a modernist associated with the now-defunct Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School and a subject of renewed interest in the last few years. (Bunnell's work may be seen at David Cook Fine Art on Wazee Street.)
Bunnell's influence is clear in a group of paintings in which Felix reduces the mountains and the clouds to geometric shapes; he refers to these as his cubist paintings. In "Colorado Abstract," an oil on board where the mountains lean precariously and the sky is littered with rectangular clouds, there's a planar conception of pictorial space that has been instinctually, not mathematically, derived.
"Peak Abstract," another oil on board hung right next to "Colorado Abstract," pushes the effect even further: It seems as though the mountain, composed of a series of overlapping planes, most of which are painted blue-green, might fall over onto the viewer. Flat rectilinear clouds are caught on the gray peak, and each occupies its own arbitrary plane.
"These paintings are a continuation of what I've been doing," says Felix, "and they're very experimental; I'm stretching out into more stylized shapes from nature, and I'm having a lot of fun doing it."
For those who are more comfortable with signature Felix landscapes, the show includes a number of those, too. This classic work involves conventionalized views of the mountains. Though not as severe as the geometric views, many of these scenes are likewise imaginary, and they actually appear to be artfully disguised abstractions. Examples include "The Flatirons," set in Boulder, and "The Canyon," set in southern Colorado or northern New Mexico.
All of Felix's paintings evince his skill as a painter. The margins between the colors are tightly done and have a hard edge. Within those margins, complicated colors have been blended from multiple hues, thus expressing his talent as a colorist. The "white" clouds are really pink and blue, the "green" hillsides actually yellow and blue.
The third artist in the show is Rita Derjue, whose pieces -- also contemporary landscapes -- are in the space beneath the mezzanine. Derjue is new to the gallery, but she's been exhibiting her watercolors and acrylics in the area for more than thirty years. The paintings here are mostly country scenes set around Colorado, although there's one of Tuscany and one of the Italian Alps. Derjue's technique is brushy and sketchy, and she prefers toned-up, non-naturalistic colors. This surely reflects her training in Munich, the home of German expressionism. "Red House & Barn," an acrylic on paper, consists of a crowded group of houses in the foreground and mountains in the background; the piece is composed of a riot of colors, from barn red to taxicab yellow.
These expressive works on paper by Derjue are good, if perhaps too traditional.
Even more traditional -- and therefore definitely too traditional -- are the works hung on the mezzanine, by Lucy Congdon. These green-and-brown paintings are a surprise coming from Congdon, because they're conservative and modest. Can this be the same Lucy Congdon who does those neat modernist sculptures like the one sitting right outside Havu's front door? Apparently.
The show is clearly uneven, but by separating the artists as he did last time, director Havu has begun to deal more intelligently with the large and various spaces contained within his gallery.
In the weeks since Sheila Kaplan, president of the Metropolitan State College of Denver, fired Center for the Visual Arts director Sally Perisho ("Going Down?", January 3), a couple of things have happened. Most notably, a group of well-known artists and others have sent letters to Kaplan denouncing the firing. In addition, a petition is being circulated in Perisho's defense and is to be presented to Kaplan and to the trustees of the State Colleges of Colorado.
As heartwarming as these efforts are, they are unlikely to accomplish their desired effect -- to get Perisho back at the helm of the CVA. But it's nice to see the commotion anyway.
Kaplan's only reply has been to send out a letter of her own to the CVA's advisory council members (and a similar missive in response to letters sent by protesters) in which she tersely writes that she can't, for "professional and legal reasons," comment on Perisho's firing. Kaplan has also said that a national search will be launched to find Perisho's replacement. The new director, according to Kaplan, will bring the CVA to "the next level of excellence and prominence." Hopefully that doesn't mean the next level down.
The idea for a national search bugs me, because things like this almost never work. There are exceptions, I know: Lewis Sharp, the masterful director of the Denver Art Museum, was hired out of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. But more often, the national search leads to a Kenworth Moffett, briefly the undistinguished director of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. The problem is that the winner of a national search will be, as likely as not, responding to the next national search as soon as possible.
On the other hand, think of how often a local -- like Perisho herself -- takes over and then does a really good job. Simon Zalkind at the Singer Gallery springs to mind, as does Cydney Payton at the MCA. It makes sense that those who already have a commitment to the area would also have a commitment to the area's culture. That's something that can't be said for the products of a national search. Of course, Metro left itself with no choice: Everybody around here knows how Perisho was treated after a decade of distinguished work, so I'm sure very few locals will apply.
Here's one last CVA item: Though a disgruntled staffer felt that Perisho did little more than "unpack some boxes," Metro's administrators now know better. They had to scramble to find someone to install the traveling African American Works on Paper exhibit, now on display. Their first choice -- Jim Robischon of the Robischon Gallery, which is next door to the CVA -- begged off; he had his own show to hang. So Ann Daley, a curator at the DAM and an old friend of Perisho's, wound up doing it.
That Daley stepped in really says something, because she's also the curator for the private collection of Jan and Fred Mayer, longtime supporters of the CVA. The Mayers' residence, "The Red House," is just a few doors down from the CVA. By sending in Daley, the Mayers have clearly indicated their continuing support for the center. Which is a good thing, because without it, the CVA might already be on its way out.
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