Springtime in the Rockies
The signs of spring are everywhere: Flowers are blooming; the leaves are coming out on the trees, and the 2002-2003 art season is officially over.
That means we now find ourselves plunged neck deep into the off-season. But don't be misled by that designation; worthwhile exhibits will continue all the way through this fall, when the next season gets under way. There are differences, though, between the off-season and the on. For example, off-season shows tend to run lots longer than those in-season. And group shows are more often the main course off-season, while solos are the standard fare in-season.
Fitting the description of an off-season show like a glove (being both a long-running exhibit and a wide-ranging group show) is Above & Below, which opened last week at the William Havu Gallery. The title refers to sky and land; nearly everything in it is a contemporary take on the tradition of the Western landscape.
Above & Below starts off with the work of regionally famous painter Tracy Felix. Though he lives in the wilds of Manitou Springs, Felix is well known in Denver because he's regularly exhibited around here since the late 1980s. Felix has had a very good career run so far. As a result, his paintings have been shown at several top galleries over the decades (here at Havu, they've been on display for only the last four years) and can be found in many public and private collections up and down the Front Range, including those of the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Pueblo's Sangre de Cristo Art Center.
Felix has developed a highly idiosyncratic style in which he simplifies the Western scenery into a somewhat abstracted representation done in a limited and essentially naturalistic palette. In a Felix painting, the peaks, the canyons, the valleys and all the other features --topographic and astral -- are transformed into a series of abstract shapes, many of which are repeated, like the triangles that stand in for the trees on the mountainsides. Many of the other shapes morph out of one another to convey the idea, if not exactly the image, of objects. This is how Felix creates the various virtually indescribable shapes that make up his clouds.
Though most representational painters employ photography at some stage of the process, Felix emphatically does not, which is hardly surprising considering how little the paintings look like the actual landscapes they purport to illustrate. And many of them are not depictions of any actual place, anyway, but instead come right out of Felix's imagination. Again, that's no surprise, considering those triangular trees seen in some of them -- not to mention the rectangular clouds seen in others.
The conventionalized vistas glimpsed in a Felix painting have an almost cartoon-like character, but that's hardly the artist's intention. Unlike many other painters of his generation, cartoons are not one of Felix's influences; instead, his paintings refer to the art of the transcendentalist movement as it manifested itself in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico from the 1930s to the 1950s. Felix is a self-taught art historian who has looked carefully at the work of transcendentalist artists such as Andrew Dasburg, Ward Lockwood, Raymond Jonson and especially Charles Bunnell. The influence of Bunnell is particularly felt in the most thoroughly abstracted of the Felix landscapes.
The Felix paintings, all done in oil on board, are hung in the first space inside Havu's front door and in the adjacent space. Facing the entry are a pair of Felix paintings, which, though they are immediately recognizable as his -- there are the conventionalized shapes based on natural forms painted with the limited palette -- they are also clearly different from his classic style pieces and different from one another, too.
On the left is "Dancing Aspens," an uncharacteristic close-up of a grove of trees: a blue spruce and, as could be expected, a stand of aspens. In this painting, the artist transfers the repeated triangles, representing trees seen in the classic landscapes, into similarly repeated lozenge shapes that suggest leaves. On the right is "Gateway to the Rockies," in which the vaguely naturalistic shapes that Felix uses in one of his classic pieces are turned into non-naturalistic volumetric shapes à la Bunnell.
Adjacent and opposite are a couple of those classic landscapes, "The Road to Taos" and "Red Rocks Amphitheater." "The Road to Taos" is pure Felix, from the twin peaks cast in shadows in the background to the fantastic tepee village in the foreground. "Red Rocks Amphitheater" is a study for a mural that was proposed for the new Red Rocks Visitor Center. Much to Felix's disappointment, it was rejected, which is unfortunate, because it would have suited that new building very well.
An interesting feature seen in these classic paintings is the incredible three-dimensional illusion that Felix is able to achieve in them. The scenes appear to fall away from the picture plane into deep imaginary space, while the features meant to seem closest to the viewer, like the scrub vegetation at the bottom, appear to pop up above the surface of the picture. However, a quick check while looking from the side reveals that Felix's paintings are essentially flat, with no raised areas, though they are pretty brushy.
Felix is a fanatic about brushwork, putting what appear to be thousands of individual daubs of paint on each painting. That's a lot of work, but even more astounding are the thousands of brushstrokes hidden underneath done in toned-up colors, which Felix routinely uses as the first step in creating a piece. These under-paintings are totally covered in the finished pieces and are used only to subtly tint the quieter tones of the surface pigments.
More Felixes are on display in the connecting space, including a couple of choice landscapes and, in a very different mood, a group of studies related to "Gateway to the Rockies." One of these studies, "Mountain Rain," has its fully realized painting also in the gallery, though it's back in the storage racks and, inexplicably, not in the show. Make sure you ask to see it.
In the area at the bottom of the stairs is some recent work by another well-known Colorado artist, Sandra Kaplan. She's been around even longer than Felix, exhibiting her work locally since the late 1970s. Since then, Kaplan has shown all over the country, from coast to coast, and around the world in places as far-flung as Peru, Russia and Saudi Arabia. The Kaplan paintings in the Havu show, done during the last couple of years, mark a major stylistic shift for the well-established painter. In the '90s, Kaplan was painting views of gardens, which she still does from time to time, but the body of work in Above & Below concerns the sky.
Kaplan has long created large compositions through the assemblage of smaller panels put together in multiples, which is what she's done here. In "Lightning," done in oil on canvas, Kaplan takes nine square canvas panels and arranges them into a three-by-three grid. In the center panel, there's a stark linear abstraction that represents a meteorological chart symmetrically laid out on a pastel color field. On the three panels hung on the right side, there's a single image of a storm cloud. The remaining panels, on the other hand, are marked with their own individual images that are unrelated except by subject matter: stormy weather.
The tour de force of these sky paintings is surely "Some Thoughts About the Weather...Maps," a many-paneled painting that's nearly seventeen feet high and nine feet wide. For "Maps," Kaplan employs both square and rectangular panels of various sizes, which she has arranged in a vertical stack rising up the wall. Some of the panels depict the sky, both cloudless and cloudy, while others have compositions based on weather maps and satellites.
Although Kaplan's garden paintings are her claim to fame -- coincidentally, they're also on display, at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center -- I think these newer pieces, looking up at the sky instead of down at the ground, represent her best efforts yet.
Felix and Kaplan are given the lion's share of the space at Havu, but the show also includes a number of other artists. Given the choicest spot among these is Jane Troup, from Missouri, whose work is displayed in the space facing the gallery's large show windows. The Troups, all landscapes, have a studied, childlike quality that puts them firmly in the magic-realist camp. Plus, they're beautifully executed.
In the space beneath the mezzanine are the works of Jean Gumpper, a Colorado Springs-based artist who teaches printmaking at Colorado College. Gumpper's prints of the natural environment -- trees, ponds and fields -- are quite lyrical, a quality enhanced by the unusual technique she employs. Gumpper uses a slab of wet clay as the printing bed, along with wet and dry pigments in lieu of inks. Even the paper itself is strange, a synthetic inner lining made of a thick, stiff fabric that's produced for the dressmaking industry. The lining is very fibrous and gives a broken effect to the printed colors, which makes Gumpper's pieces invariably expressionistic.
Up on the mezzanine, there's another standout in the show: Scott Greenig, a painter who formerly lived in Colorado but now lives in Wyoming. Greenig's highly detailed miniature landscapes reflect the influences of both photo-realism and impressionism. At first glance, they could easily be mistaken for nineteenth-century paintings, especially because of the way they look in their wide, battered, black-painted frames. It's been a while since Greenig's work has been exhibited in town, but Havu, which just took him on, is sure to be putting more of his work on display soon -- hopefully including some major pieces.
Above & Below seems just right at this time of year. After all, in the spring and summer, many people like to go out and take in the world-class scenery that's so close by. But with this show, there's no need to drive to the mountains: There are some very choice views at Havu, which is as close as the Golden Triangle.
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