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Season of the West

"Leadville, Colorado," by Eric Paddock, color photograph.

In the last 25 years, the visibility of the art world has undergone tremendous changes -- upheavals, if you will.

For a variety of reasons that range from improvements in mass communication to changes in art education, global artistic innovations are now communicated almost instantaneously. This expedience has led to a riot of competing contemporary styles that run the gamut from neo-traditionalism to conceptualism, and they're all being promoted simultaneously. This stylistic state of affairs has come to be called pluralism. One benefit of stylistic pluralism is the promotion of artists from underrepresented groups, notably women and ethnic and racial minority artists. This is referred to as diversity.

At the same time that pluralism and diversity were taking hold, certain longstanding values in the visual arts, such as excellence and beauty, were being attacked as reactionary. And the champions of the excellent and the beautiful, called connoisseurs, have been accused of acting as elitists, or worse.

So, in a world where anything goes but the finest, what would a curator do?

For Sally Perisho, the director of the Center for the Visual Arts, which is associated with Metropolitan State College of Denver, the answer has been to walk a fine line through these ideological minefields.

On one hand, more than any other local curator, Perisho has embraced pluralism and been an advocate for diversity. On the other, she's a classically trained art historian and a genuine connoisseur. The current exhibit, The West: New Ways/Old Visions, makes this synthesis seem so right. Perisho has included a wide array of styles and mediums by accomplished artists from diverse backgrounds, most of them local. The resulting show is gorgeous, making the Center for the Visual Arts look and feel like a small museum, which, in a sense, it is. "This is the kind of show that the community needs to see," she says. "There are many artists in the region who continue to do Western work, and it's important for people to see that Western art is more than Remington and Russell."

She scheduled it to coincide with the National Western Stock Show, but admits that it's unlikely any attendees at the annual event will find their way down to the CVA. It is the third time Perisho has organized an exhibit with a Western theme at the CVA. "They're my favorite kind of shows to put together," she says. "But, unfortunately, it doesn't work to do one every year."

As we enter the CVA, the small front gallery has been installed with five major paintings by Manitou Springs artist Sushe Felix, all completed in the last two years. Felix is well-known, and her work has been included in a number of significant collections, like those at the Denver Art Museum and at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center.

A courageous painter, Felix hasn't settled on a signature mode. Instead, she has followed a bold stylistic progression since coming onto the Denver scene in the mid-1980s. She began with neo-expressionism, went on briefly to traditional representation, then fantasy-based figuration, and finally settled on the landscape of the Southwest.

The paintings in this show represent her ruminations on transcendentalism in landscape painting, especially the sort that flourished in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico from the 1930s to the 1950s. She is interested in the art history of the region and has studied the work of a number of transcendental artists, including Agnes Pelton and Raymond Jonson. The effect is easy to see in her paintings. Just like her mentors, Felix uses crisp, hard edges to contain her forms.

Straight lines and rectangular shapes dominate "Red Sky," an acrylic on board from 1998. A blazing orange sun in the center right of the horizontal panel floats in a red sky above a landscape made up of mountains, trees and subterranean molten magma. Though the landscape is completely abstract, the placement of the elements and the horizontal shape refer back to the scenery. The fiery palette and the jagged shape of the rocks locate the scene somewhere in the West.

Opposite the Felix paintings are four color photographs by Denver artist and Colorado Historical Society photo archivist Eric Paddock (see "Negative Thinking," page 38). These are straightforward shots of small buildings around the state. In "Leadville, Colorado," a 1998 chromogenic color photo from Paddock's "Cultural Shrines" series, a small red clapboard house is adorned with what could be called regional icons -- crossed skis, crossed snowshoes and a wagon wheel. In the yard, just for good measure, there's an old ore car and a wagon. Another shot is less picturesque: "Aurora, Colorado," also a 1998 chromogenic color photograph, focuses on suburban sprawl; in the center, a tacky house is under construction.

The rough mix of the ideal West in the Felix paintings and the real West in the Paddock photos is something Perisho aimed for, but it's only one of many dualities she has set up throughout the show. Proceeding into the large rooms in the back of the center, viewers come upon "Mountainscape: Spill," a 1999 floor sculpture by Colorado Springs-based artist Louis Cicotello. The piece is about pollution and includes an oozing "spill" made of laminated wood coming out of a "mountain" made of coal.  

Filling nearly the entire right side wall is a group of compelling pieces in oil on wood by Karen Kitchel. These are composites with many identical parts. In 1999's "Ditchbank x 12," she arranges a grid of twelve small paintings hung in three rows of four. Each one is a hyperrealist view of a different kind of grass, presumably of the type that would grow along a drainage ditch. "American Grasslands: Prairie, Pasture, Crop and Lawn," from 1997-1999, also takes up grass. It is seen here in an abbreviated form, since only nine of its 100 panels have been put on display. Kitchel has only been in Colorado since 1997 -- she also spent time in Michigan, California and Montana -- but these grass paintings already look right at home here.

Adjacent to the Kitchels are a group of five gelatin silver prints by prominent Colorado photographer W. Andrew Beckham. For the last decade, Beckham has been photographing the western landscape, and each of the photos here is a closeup of a natural setting that's been subtly disturbed. An example is "Drained Beaver Pond, Moraine Park, Colorado," in which reeds and rushes lie smashed on the ground. Another is "Lithic Butchering Site, Moraine Park, Colorado," in which split boulders fill the frame.

Beckham's success has been based on work of this type. He has been an artist-in-residence at the prestigious Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass and is currently a Fullbright Fellow in Israel, where he is working on a new body of photographs.

His contemporary photos are the perfect introduction to the historical shots of Laton Alton Huffman, a nineteenth-century photographer who worked in Montana. Huffman's images are antique, but the photos themselves are not, having been specially printed for this display in sepia-toned enlargements that reveal the lost frontier of cowboys and Indians. They are hung in the conference room, which is being used as additional gallery space.

Just outside the conference room, in a niche space, is an ambitious installation from 1999 called "Cisco No Services," by Don Stinson. This piece depicts the closing of the last gas station in Cisco, Utah, through paintings, maps and even gas pumps. It is a continuation of his two-dimensional wall pieces that concern vanishing small-town landmarks like trailers, motels and drive-ins.

In another nearby niche is another installation, "Reflection," done this year by Lawrence Argent. An art professor at the University of Denver, Argent is a recognized master in the installation medium. Pieces like the fairly modest "Reflection" is one reason why: Deceptively simple in its materials, the piece is nonetheless quite conceptually complex.

A found white-painted metal washstand with two basins is in the corner of the niche. One basin is filled with recycled motor oil, which is black with sludge. As you get close to the piece, you can smell it. Who but Argent would use hazardous waste for its aesthetic properties? Above the oil pool, hanging from the ceiling, are a pair of battered boxing gloves. The other basin has been filled with curled shavings of white soap with a cowboy hat, also carved from soap, sitting on top. The bone white of the carved soap provides a beautiful contrast to the rich metallic black of the dirty oil. Argent's installation addresses the disgraceful role of the cowboys in fighting conservation of the land, Perisho says: "The cowboys need to clean up their act."

Another duality in this show is the pairing of two painters who both look to the history of regional painting, Jim Vogel and Tracy Felix. (Tracy Felix and Sushe Felix are husband and wife.)

Vogel, who was trained as a graphic designer and lives in Denver, is a self-taught painter. Some of his paintings, such as "Country Road Becomes Commuter Highway," a 1999 oil on board, have irregular shapes. In this piece, the destruction of the land is conveyed in a lyrical way -- a jarring juxtaposition. Perisho points out that Vogel's love of curving lines is not unlike the work of Thomas Hart Benton, an early twentieth-century regionalist master from Kansas City.

Felix also looks to Benton and other artists from the 1930s, but he pushes the influences further into abstraction than does Vogel. The surfaces of Felix's paintings are the product of an elaborate process involving underpainting and hundreds, if not thousands, of individual brushstrokes. The ostensible subjects of his work are the mountains, but he conventionalizes them into soft rounded shapes under cotton-candy clouds, notable in the recently completed "Ouray's Summer Camp," an oil on board from 1999.  

One of the paintings in this show marks a new direction for Felix: dark and brooding, "The Ambitious Spruce," an oil on board, is completely unexpected though not unrelated to his famous landscapes. Like his earlier pieces, this painting has a dense all-over cover of small brushstrokes. But the rich and moody palette is distinctly new, as is the close-up perspective he takes, which contrasts with the long-range panoramas that he is associated with.

Around the corner from the Felix paintings is a small group of abstract paintings by Keri Ataumbi Greeves, a Santa Fe artist. Greeves is part Native American -- her mother is Kiowa and Commanche -- and she grew up on the Wind River Reservation. She went on to study at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence and later at New Mexico's Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work demonstrates both her lineage and her exposure to contemporary art. Her style looks like a cross between a Plains Indian buffalo-hide painting and an abstract-expressionist one.

A different take on landscape painting is seen in the photo-realist landscapes by Jim Colbert, a Colorado artist with more than a decade of local exhibitions under his belt. Like many others in The West, Colbert is interested in ecological issues. In "Glenwood Canyon (Pictures of You)," an oil on canvas from 1999, he shows the construction of Interstate 70 through the once-pristine canyon. The scarred cliffs are straight ahead behind the graded canyon floor, which is dotted with steel and concrete pylons under construction. Also poignant is "Raton Overlook," a 1996 oil on canvas in which a high-tension wire tower is dead center on the horizon.

The Colberts lead us back to the front of the CVA, where Denver painter Carlos Frésquez has been put together with Colorado Springs sculptor Bill Burgess.

Frésquez is represented by two easel-sized paintings and a mural-sized piece. The mural, 1999's "Third World Aztlan," is painted in mixed media on a corrugated fiberglass panel. It's fabulous. Small paintings -- one a santo of a crucifix, the other a copy of a Picasso -- are hung from the painting. There are also images of a Mexican cowboy, a farm worker and an old car, which are painted directly on the fiberglass. Somewhat more conventional is one of the easel paintings, "Tsi-Mayoh (Chimayo): La Tierra Sagrada," an oil on panel from 1994 with a vessel filled with soil. As usual, these pieces concern the artist's Chicano heritage.

The three Burgess sculptures date from the 1980s and are not like his more recent work. In each, skeletal piles are constructed of welded steel. Wood and other objects are then attached, and the entire thing is painted in a polychrome finish. Though they are completely abstract, they do include items with a vaguely Western feel, such as animal horns and gnarled twigs.

Perisho cast her net far and wide to come up with this impressive show. And when you think about some of the obvious choices, like Chuck Forsman and John Hull, whom she left out, you get some idea of how pervasive the influence of the West and the Western landscape is on so many local artists. Perisho is right when she points out that it's the one thing unique to the art of our region.


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