Though contemporary art went fully international more than a generation ago, certain qualifiers related to country, culture, history, sexuality, gender and ethnicity, among a raft of other factors, persist, and there is no indication that they will give way to some kind of worldwide sameness. This idea came to mind after I took in two strong shows: Modern Vistas, at William Havu Gallery, and Cross Currents, at the Center for Visual Art.
Modern Vistas includes a pair of well-established Colorado artists, Sushe Felix and her husband, Tracy Felix. Both have been steeped in the history of early modernism in New Mexico and Colorado and have absorbed the influences of various painters and, as a result, translated them to their respective work.
Though each has a distinctive approach, the two artists' pieces are undeniably related, and there's no doubt as to why they've been integrated together for this show instead of being installed in separate sections, which would have been possible here.
Tracy specializes in simplified and altered views of the landscape in a signature style that riffs off modernist realism from the '20s to the '40s; he combines that with a cartoony approach to the forms of the mountains, trees and especially the clouds, which appear more looming than ever. He once told me that the Jellystone Park backdrops on the old Yogi Bear cartoons were always in the back of his mind as he worked, and you can really see that. Among the standouts are "Kit Carson and the Crestones" and "Capitol Peak," both of which have a monumental presence — much like a traditional Western landscape. The appeal of "Wetterhorn Peak," with its unnatural-looking cloud forming a halo around the mountaintop, is more intimate and more whimsical.
Sushe, for her part, has tried a variety of styles over the years; the pieces in Modern Vistas clearly refer to the cubo-regionalist character of historic artists like Raymond Jonson and especially Charles Bunnell. She's done a number of acrylic paintings, some of which have exquisite preparatory studies in graphite on paper, like "Changing Winds" and "Thunder & Lightning." The little drawings, which at first glance look like Broadmoor Academy lithos, perfectly anticipate the big paintings in tone and detail. In "Thunder & Lightning," the mountains, clouds and lightning bolts of the storm scene have been tamed and conventionalized, with Sushe using a soft, free-hand geometry for all the forms. It's a cool critique and an homage to the Western landscape tradition.
Also part of the fun right now at Havu are architectonic ceramic sculptures by Colorado artist Bebe Alexander. These vertical tabletop pieces, which have been beautifully made and glazed, suggest parodies of skyscrapers on the one hand and grain silos on the other. They've been installed on plinths throughout the section of the gallery dedicated to the Felixes. Up on the mezzanine are pieces by Max Lehman of New Mexico, who also uses ceramics as a kind of parody. He mines Mexican, Hispanic and Native American forms and characters and puts a retro animation spin on them. Lehman and Alexander both come from a Western-American neo-pop sensibility that has been going strong since the '70s, yet each brings something new to the equation.
That neo-pop thing is also apparent in some of the works in Cross Currents, at the Center for Visual Art (which is part of Metropolitan State University of Denver but is located off-campus, on Santa Fe Drive). But there are also a number of other styles here — notably conceptualism. This interesting and ambitious group show was organized by CVA creative director Cecily Cullen and focuses on contemporary art by Native American artists — not just in the West, as might be expected, but also from the rest of the country. The exhibit is a followup to Currents, a show Cullen did at the old LoDo CVA in 2009 that had the same theme and was equally intelligent in its conception.
In a way, this show picks up where that one left off, and includes three artists who were also in the earlier version: Nicholas Galanin, Marie Watt and Will Wilson. Cullen points out that in the earlier show, the three were cast in the roles of emerging artists, but in the current endeavor, they represent the old guard.
Watt is represented by "Canopy: Leger," one of her famous stacked pieces. In these works, she appropriates the appearance of a sale display of Indian artifacts to make conceptual sculpture. Here the stack is not chiefly composed of folded blankets, as is usual for her, but rather made of wood carved to look like a stack of blankets. In an interesting side note, Watt's twenty-foot-tall "Blanket Story" has just been acquired by the Denver Art Museum and is displayed with the totem poles in the Ponti building.
Wilson is given an entire large gallery in the back, which he has lined with enormous digital blow-ups of tintype portraits. These pieces are really striking, with the tintype process blurring some details, especially toward the edges. The subjects stare directly at the viewer and, since they are larger than life-sized, are a little intimidating. Wilson, too, has had work recently acquired by the DAM: a set of four wall-mounted, beaded panels, with dark beads conveying QR codes on each against a light-colored field.
One revelation of the CVA show is the varied work of Merritt Johnson, which I'd never seen before. Johnson is given the entire window space in the front. Her work includes some very cool, very contemporary abstract paintings, along with striking costumes that serve as sculptures. The most show-stopping of her pieces is "Waterfall Face (Emergency Mantle for Diplomatic Security and Near Invisibility)," which features a draped and beaded headdress with a collar made of real bird wings.
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Thanks to the CVA's series of small galleries, each artist in Cross Currents has essentially been given a small, clearly defined solo. The other artists are Cannupahanska, Frank Buffalo Hyde, Sarah Ortegon, Wendy Red Star and Sarah Sense.
I'd like to close with a swipe. I've complained plenty about how dumb the programming at the History Colorado Center is. But until now, passersby on Broadway, Lincoln or 12th Avenue could hardly have known what I was talking about. After all, the building itself, by David Tryba, is very sharp-looking. But a couple of weeks ago, the bad ideas inside bled out the doors. Someone there apparently thought it would be a good idea to drape the two monumental bronze sculptures outside — T.D. Kelsey's "Bison" and Veryl Goodnight's "A New Beginning" — in giant Broncos jerseys. Neither sculpture is to my taste, as both are examples of contemporary neo-traditionalism, but dressing them up strikes me as a lame attempt to relate to the "common man." What it really does, though, is degrade the sculptures as well as the museum's overall appearance.