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Magic Mountains

"The Maroon Bells," by Tracy Felix, oil on panel.

During the '20s and '30s, artists in Colorado and New Mexico began doing abstractions based on landscape paintings. They took the formal components of a mountain, mesa or rock formation, then simplified the compositions into non-realistic versions of the scene. With the rise of pure abstraction in the post-war period, the hybrid landscape-abstracts were consigned to the trash heap of art history. But in the 1980s, there was a revival of interest in those pioneering artists and their style of work. Among those around here who followed this path, Tracy Felix is one of the best known and most accomplished. It's been nearly three years since he had a solo in town, which makes Tracy Felix, now at William Havu Gallery, a special event. (In fact, this show is the first in memory in which he isn't paired with his wife, Sushe Felix, who will have her own solo at Havu next month.)

Tracy Felix was born in the San Luis Valley, where -- as he only recently found out -- his pioneer family first settled before the Civil War. As a child, he moved with his family to Colorado Springs, where he grew up. Around twenty years ago he married Sushe, and the painting pair set up shop in Manitou Springs. A couple of years ago, they relocated to Lakewood.

For decades, Felix, a self-taught artist, has explored the Rockies as his primary source of inspiration, creating paintings that are part homage to and part parody of the traditional Western landscape painting. To Felix, the Western landscape is an endless subject.

Felix is also an expert in early- to mid-twentieth-century modernism in the region, and he has collected relevant material for many years. He's been involved as a consultant and curator for a number of exhibits exploring the topic, and he's currently in the preliminary stages of curating an exhibit at Golden's Foothills Art Center about the rise of abstraction in Colorado.

"My work is very related to the artwork I collect. I'm very interested in modernist painting from the '30s and '40s in the Colorado Springs area and in New Mexico," notes Felix, who lists Charles Bunnell, William Sanderson, Howard Cook, Cady Wells and Andrew Dasburg among his favorites. "I like the way those artists dissected and modernized the landscape and put their own twist on it."

Another aspect of those paintings is the cartoonish character of the draftsmanship, which is underscored by flat and smooth areas of color. This was particularly true of the Midwestern regionalists, such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, who also inspire Felix. "Their work was very cartoony, and it also has to do with the cartoons I watched on television as a kid. You know, Jellystone Park -- I thought it was so cool," says Felix, referring to Yogi Bear's imaginary home, which had spherical and conical trees and geometric mountains.

Felix works with a severely limited palette of naturalistic colors derived from the landscape: blue, green, white, rust and ocher. "They are the colors I love -- the beautiful blues, the sky colors, the russet colors of the peaks, the wonderful red of the sandstone," says Felix. "I don't like to use too many colors, just the basics."

The Felix paintings at Havu are installed in the main space. There are a dozen new paintings supplemented by a small group of older pieces. Hanging opposite the front door is "The Maroon Bells," which, like everything else in the show, is an oil on panel. It's a classic example of Felix's signature style, in which the scenic elements of sky, mountains and valley are organized into interacting arcs of forms. The clouds in the background frame the peaks in the center, as does the valley in the foreground. The amount of detail that goes into each piece is striking, with tiny shapes assembled to make larger pictorial elements. Felix's paintings are very labor-intensive, so his having completed a dozen in the last six months is quite an accomplishment.

There are a number of works on display that relate closely to "The Maroon Bells" in approach, composition and conception. These include "Wilson Peak" and "Capitol Peak," and they will be the most familiar to viewers because they are done in what could be called Felix's "traditional" style. "My 'traditional' style -- isn't it funny? -- it's very untraditional," says Felix. "But it's what I've been doing for so long that for me, it is traditional."

Felix has also been doing pieces that he describes as "cubist" off and on for a long time. These are geometric treatments of the same kinds of scenes he does in his so-called traditional ones. "The cubist ones are more intimate and more abstracted than my traditional ones," says Felix, who notes that there's much less under-painting, meaning the cubist images are much more instantaneous and direct. There's been increased interest in the works, which Felix credits to a piece on display at the Kirkland Museum, an earlier version of the cubist offerings in the Havu show. "Since that painting was hung in the Kirkland, more people have become interested in my work and are specifically interested in that style," Felix says.

Off to the left of the gallery's main entrance is a quartet of these paintings: "Land Rhythms," "Cubic Landscape," "Mountain Uplifting" and "Mountain Pass." In each, Felix lays out the scene using hard-edged lines that are not quite straight. The pieces are a lot more abstract -- and a lot simpler -- than his traditional ones (which are already abstract and simple), but they still convey the idea of mountain scenery.

Interestingly, a couple of paintings are done in a style that is halfway between Felix's traditional mode and the cubist sensibility. "The Sangre de Cristos" is a good example, with the mountain range reduced to interlocking semicircles of color that make it seem as though the peaks are roiling, like the clouds.

Among contemporary artists, Felix is unusual on several counts -- mainly, that he's followed the same path he set out on decades ago. Styles and sensibilities have come and gone, but Felix has kept his own counsel all along. Given the historic sources he cites and the way his paintings look -- both traditional and cubist -- his work is obviously part of the neo-transcendentalist movement, though he dismisses that appraisal out of hand. "I'm not into theories at all. I just want to paint," he says with a laugh.


In addition to Tracy Felix, Havu is presenting the work of several other artists. Installed throughout the main exhibition space are ceramic sculptures by Boulder artist Margaret Haydon. The pieces, many of which reference ships, are beautifully made and have exquisite glazes. The use of boat shapes is a witty play on the idea of the vessel, which is the mainstay of ceramics.

"Long Boat," in glazed stoneware, is displayed in the window, just inside the door. It's an exotic-looking craft that's been skillfully modeled. The exterior is covered in a foaming white glaze with a rich celadon on the inside; it's very Asian-looking. "Long Boat" is signature Haydon, but there are other pieces that aren't, including the large abstract sculpture "Canyon." In this two-part piece that was glazed a yellowy brown, the boat forms were reduced to elements in a random decorative pattern that covers the piece.

As marvelous as these Haydons are, they don't really work with the Felix paintings. I understand why it occurred to gallery owner Bill Havu to put them together -- like Felix, Haydon is doing cartoonish versions of recognizable things -- but the subjects just don't jibe. After all, Haydon's boats are in some ways antithetical to the arid mountain scenery beloved by Felix. It would have been better if the installation were clearly separated so that each artist could shine in his or her own way.

The meticulous and beautiful pencil drawings by Denver artist Michael Burrows are hung in the space below the mezzanine, which is wholly separated from the Felix landscapes, though there's a Haydon or two nearby. Burrows takes an almost photo-realist approach, but the shared subject of the landscape thematically links his work to Felix's.

Burrows, who teaches at the Community College of Denver, has a steady hand, and it's amazing that he can get such realistic-looking pictures using only black and white. And while he chooses scenes that are dense with pictorial elements, he still renders the tangle of plants and web of clouds to the nth degree of accuracy.

The Burrows are quite traditional, as are the Jeff Aeling landscape paintings upstairs on the mezzanine. Don't get me wrong: Their styles are completely different, with Burrows being interested in a downright fanatical attention to detail while Aeling takes a more painterly and atmospheric approach. But they're both still old-school contemporary realists.

Aeling is from St. Louis, and like so many Midwestern artists, he's repeatedly come out West to record the picturesque views. His monumental paintings at Havu are heroic, with panoramic views of the sweeping plains and majestic mountains. They are somewhat dark and moody, suggesting that something's about to happen, whether an approaching storm or simply the coming of sundown.

Though Tracy Felix and the other displays at Havu opened just a couple of weeks ago, there's a shorter-than-usual run -- only five weeks total -- so get over there soon, because it will all be put away before you know it.


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