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MOVING MOUNTAINS

The husband-and-wife team of Tracy and Sushe Felix emerged from the free-for-all that was 1980s art in Colorado. The Manitou Springs couple was associated with a hip, cartoonlike approach that was part and parcel of the neo-expressionism that dominated the period. But in the meantime, they've changed significantly, taking their own paths to success--Tracy through the refinement of his single-minded view of local landscapes, and Sushe with highly experimental pieces in different media.

The Felixes are well-known to Denver audiences, having shown in town for nearly a decade at a variety of galleries. But for the last several years, each was represented by a different gallery, making it impossible to see their pieces side by side except in their studio. A current exhibit at Inkfish marks the first time in a long time their work has been presented together.

In the new show, Tracy's flattened landscapes and Sushe's abstractions derived from the human figure and nature are intermingled. This approach could have been chancy--one spouse might have suffered at the hands of the other--but here the formidable power of each artist is only enhanced by the inevitable comparisons.

Tracy is first and foremost a painter, as he demonstrates with small gems of mountain scenes rendered in gouache on paper and several thoroughly accomplished oil paintings on masonite. Though he is self-taught, his approach is hardly naive. On the contrary, these works are triumphs of advanced painterly techniques. And the amount of work is staggering: There must be literally thousands of brush strokes in a single picture.

Tracy's profusion of brush work contrasts with the simplified design of his nominally realist landscapes. Because he creates an entire scenic vista on the same flat picture plane, there really isn't a difference in depth of field between the foreground and the background. Instead, the bottom simply corresponds to the place where the foreground would be, the top where the background is expected.

There is an admitted similarity among these closely interrelated landscapes, but since some of them date back to 1993, a definite development in Tracy's artwork is also discernable. Over the past few years his formal arrangements have gotten increasingly more complicated, while his palette has greatly expanded.

For example, in an older painting like the sublime "Pikes Peak North Face," the mountain above timberline is reduced, in several shades of rosy beige, to a horizontal row of geometric forms that fully occupy the middle of the picture. Above is the unified neon blue of the sky, which is interrupted by white clouds shaped like powder puffs, their margins edged in iridescent hues. At the bottom, the tree-covered foothills are conveyed through marks in bright green and two shades of light blue laid over a field of dark midnight blue. This superlimited circle of colors gives Tracy's older paintings a subtlety that moderates the boldness of his mountain forms.

At first glance, recent oils such as the large and resplendent "Long's Peak and the Flat Irons" look the same. But they're really quite different. Tracy still conventionalizes the view, but nature, not geometry, determines the shapes. And the greater color selections are also reminiscent of the natural world. Instead of a seamless single shade in the sky, for example, Tracy creates a luminous effect with various tints of yellow, pink and purple in addition to the blue that predominates. Tracy's expert luminosity is the product of his repeated laying on of transparent glazes, one over another, until an opaque effect is achieved.

If Tracy is one of the top painters in the state, his wife, Sushe, is practically an art movement unto herself, demonstrating a rare ability to create ably as both a painter and a sculptor. Her fabulous small sculptures, in glazed and unglazed ceramic, cast bronze and carved stone, are every bit as good as her large, magisterial paintings.

Sushe's ceramics place her among the finest practitioners in the craft. Some have been stained an earthy red and burnished to a low sheen, while others feature beautiful translations of ancient Chinese glazes. A tobacco-spit brown with copper crystalline development is spectacular; more quietly appealing are several carefully formulated celadon greens. In the small stone carvings, the naturally occurring veins in the marble create added visual interest, just as the stains and glazes do in the ceramics.

A standout here is Sushe's "Reclining Woman," a bronze with a stonelike gray-green patina. The horizontal figure of the woman's body is made up of interlocking planes, while her breasts are quarter-rounds.

Like Tracy, Sushe has also included art that goes back a few years, allowing one to chart the course of her formal program. The older the work, the more recognizable the subject. The human figure, especially the nude, is the chief topic of the earlier sculptures; in the newest work, only the vaguest of references are made to things in the real world.

The specific shapes of Sushe's sculptures are taken from passages in her paintings. A stunning acrylic on masonite, "Mankind's Struggle With Nature," displays a collection of hard-edged, roughly geometric elements that refer to the piece's subject matter--the same approach used in "Reclining Woman." In the painting, the highly abstract figure is outlined with dark colors that heighten the sense of dynamism, an effect seen in many of Sushe's works, which make the subject appear to be turning or even spinning.

The closely associated "Manitou Rising From a Spring," another of Sushe's wonderful acrylics, also implies movement, but with no apparent reference to the human body. Rather, the piece appears to have more to do with the forces of nature and the supernatural. The Manitou of the title is a Ute Indian god whose existence the Utes believe is heralded by the famous springs that still carry his name. The god is portrayed by triangles and semi-circles that cast exaggerated shadows on one another. In the foreground, dark-blue-and-white circles stand in for the bubbling waters of the springs.

Water in its many forms emerges as the main topic in many of Sushe's more recent paintings. The glorious "Watermusic" is exaggeratedly horizontal in format, an entirely abstract composition featuring lines that curve up and then terminate in small, rounded shapes reminiscent of a creek flowing over rapids.

A rhythm of elemental forms--squares and spheres--is used in the same way in the remarkable "Rain Blessing," likewise a large-scale acrylic. In the painting, falling rain becomes a river that evaporates to form clouds. The viewer is guided through this process, from the top of the picture to the bottom and back again. Sushe has even provided a ladder of zigzags to get us back into the clouds once we wind up on the ground.

It may be an understatement to call these paintings technically accomplished. They're virtually flawless. This isn't surprising, since Sushe studied technique with living legend Eric Bransby, a still-active Colorado Springs muralist who got his start in the Work Projects Administration. But Sushe has eclipsed her teacher's skill, achieving a mastery of the brush that is awe-inspiring. She's a show-off about it, too, putting perfectly executed hard-edged color margins right next to indefinite, vaporous ones. And the surfaces demonstrate her accomplishments as well, with smooth areas set against gritty three-dimensional ones.

The dramatic terrain of Sushe and Tracy's longtime home in the foothills infuses the work of both artists with a self-confident spirit that's a match for the mountains themselves. Considering how different their works are from one another, it's interesting to note that both artists have drawn from the same source: the history of modern art in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.