Landscapes have been a popular subject in the fine arts for thousands of years, but in just the last century, they have become even more appealing to Colorado artists because our local scenery is so visually emphatic. Between the mountains and the plains, the West has practically cornered the market on picturesque.
Many local artists continue to make landscape paintings in the representational styles, such as realism and impressionism, that were first developed in the nineteenth century. But others have translated the landscape into contemporary art by employing some kind of abstraction -- either reducing and simplifying the view, or exaggerating it.
More than any of the other top-tier contemporary galleries in Denver, the William Havu Gallery is a center for this kind of art, having pushed new approaches to landscape painting since the early 1990s, when it was called the 1/1 Gallery and was situated in LoDo. Over the years, Havu has showcased dozens of artists who've created updated landscapes. The current show, Landmark, which brings together a distinguished trio of well-known painters with established reputations, is Havu's latest offering on the topic.
Despite their common interest in the landscape, each artist -- Tracy Felix, Jeremy Hillhouse and Greg Navratil -- takes a distinctly different path to convey it, and the resulting works are tremendously varied. So it wasn't as easy as it might have seemed to make Landmark work as a cogent, unified show. But gallery director Havu has pulled it off, mostly by giving each artist a discrete space, connected but separate from the others. In this way, as the show unfolds, it becomes something like a conversation on the nature of landscape painting, with three very different points of view.
Felix, who is from Manitou Springs, comes first, with a number of his classic mountain paintings and a handful of smaller, more experimental pieces. His recognizable work has a playful quality, but he has denied the widely held belief that comic strips have been an inspiration for him. Instead he sees Colorado and New Mexico art from the early to mid-twentieth century as his principle source of inspiration. Particularly significant for Felix are the artists associated with the Broadmoor Academy and its successor, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. For more than two decades, he has studied and collected such works. Nevertheless, his style is nothing like the regionalism he admires.
Facing us as we enter the gallery is the monumental and majestic "Ouray, Colorado," an oil on board. The work is signature Felix: The representational elements and details of the valley have been meticulously recorded, but the pictorial elements -- the cliffs, the trees, the peak and the clouds -- are abstract. The scene is at once recognizable and unrealistic.
A few of the paintings in this show indicate new directions for Felix, though. In a pair of works, both called "Ambitious Spruce" (one was displayed at the Metro Center for the Visual Arts last spring), he creates closeups of the forest instead of the sweeping vistas he ordinarily prefers. These paintings are dark and moody. Two other newer paintings, "Front Range Peak" and "Peak," take an almost opposite route. In these, he has exaggerated the rectilinear character of the landscape and stripped the scenery of details. The influence of Charles Bunnell, a Colorado Springs modernist who died in the 1970s, is apparent in both. Bunnell, an artist whose posthumous reputation is on the way up, has been of interest to Felix for a long time, and I wouldn't be surprised to see more Felix paintings along these same Bunnellian lines in the future.
Next up are the almost completely abstract paintings by Hillhouse, who was director of the Denver Art Museum's design department until retiring last year. In that job, Hillhouse had been responsible for the design of many of the most significant exhibits at the DAM, most recently the Impressionism show and the Matisse show. Amazingly, before Hillhouse was hired in 1972, the DAM didn't have a design department. Hillhouse had to create one.
Although he has been painting for nearly thirty years, Hillhouse has only rarely exhibited. Gallery director Havu points out that while he has included Hillhouse's paintings in group shows before, he's never presented such a large number of important pieces by him at the same time. "I see this show as his reintroduction into the Denver art world, a second debut," says Havu. "After he's worked so long at the museum, he now has time to focus on his career as a painter."
Hillhouse is interested in evoking the landscape in his paintings without being too literal. He has written that his paintings are about "thinking" about the landscape, as opposed to the landscape itself. Often composed of multi-panel compositions, these works suggest the landscape with extreme economy, sometimes using just a single horizontal line to separate the land from the sky, or a meandering one representing a stream as seen from above. Otherwise, the paintings are abstract-expressionist, with smears, drips and smudges used to carry out broad color fields that have been isolated from one another by the lines. Some have obviously been painted together, as color fields cross from one panel to another. In others, the panels have been painted separately and have no shared features with the sections to which they are connected. This modular approach becomes a visual element, either subtly or emphatically, depending on Hillhouse's whim.
In "Groundwork," an acrylic-on-canvas diptych, the separate panels are subtly revealed. The predominant line, a horizontal bar at the top, runs at a right angle to the central joint of the diptych, which is further disguised by the heavily painted brownish field that makes up most of the piece. In "Santa Monica Mountains Burn," another acrylic-on-canvas diptych, Hillhouse highlights the central joint of the diptych by pairing a panel of purply gray with a reddish-brown one.
"Landmark," another acrylic on canvas, is an unusual stacked diptych. Hillhouse nearly fills the bottom panel with green, brown, yellow and red smears conveying the earth, and blue streaks over pink for the sky. This painting is one of the best of the group; surely that's why the title of the show was taken from it.
Another standout is "Random Streams," a twelve-foot-long mixed media on canvas. On a field of green, red and yellow, dark lines weave their way in and out. Unfortunately, the horizontal painting has been hung very high above the floor, between the west windows and the ceiling. This makes it hard to see from the first floor; from the mezzanine, the view is at least adequate.
Under the mezzanine are the photo-realist works of Navratil, the last of the three artists in this show. For the past ten years, Navratil has been painting landscapes based on his own photographs, but he gives the well-established style of photo-realism a few tweaks, including the unnatural colors he uses and his heavily painted surfaces, visible upon closer examination. From a slight distance, the paintings look like computer-generated photos, but up close the effect evaporates, since Navratil has applied the paint fairly thickly. This technical accomplishment is undeniable, and Navratil obviously has some astounding hand-eye coordination.
He's also gifted with composition, as seen in the sweeping "Roxborough," an acrylic on canvas in which the state's famous red-sandstone rock formations are off to the side and near the top, and in the three "Ancient Bristlecone" paintings, in which tight closeups of the oft-photographed Bristlecone pine trees are the subject.
In addition to the featured works, Havu has supplemented Landmark with sculptures by Jerry Wingren and a group of abstracts by Michael Gadlin.
Wingren, who lives in the mountains west of Boulder, is represented by sculptures displayed outside the front door and behind the gallery in the courtyard shared with the Grand Cherokee lofts as well as a group of small soapstone sculptures displayed on pedestals scattered through the show inside. The small sculptures depict houses and buildings, which is a kind of sight gag, since they're set among the landscape paintings. Taken together with Wingren's outdoor pieces, Havu is essentially presenting an ad hoc Wingren show alongside Landmark.
The Gadlins, which are great, are hanging upstairs. Though this Denver-based artist has shown several times around town during the last few years, these paintings mark his introduction at Havu.
Gadlin does collages and mixed-media paintings. The paintings are really well done, especially the large ones like the luxurious "Instructions on How to Move Mountains & Part the Sea," "Elements of Something Beautiful" and its companion, "Elements of Something Beautiful Outside." Stylistically, there's a retrospective character to Gadlin's paintings that is reminiscent of early-modernist abstractions.
Both Wingren's sculptures and Gadlin's paintings work beautifully with the Landmark show.
For a while it seemed that Havu had been somewhat stymied by his incredibly spacious and elegant gallery complete with its own building and sculpture garden -- too many options, perhaps? -- and as a result, different styles of art often collided unpleasantly, or at the very least, annoyingly. But Landmark, which comes on the heels of the successful Shark lithography show, makes it clear that Havu is beginning to better figure out how to get the most from his space.
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