Last summer, I was part of a panel discussion about the role that our local scenery plays in both contemporary and traditional art, especially — though not exclusively — in the art that's done in the region. At one point, artist Don Stinson, who was in the audience, made a point that I've thought a lot about since: Western views are not just landscapes; they're celebrity landscapes, familiar to just about everybody who sees them.
This situation is a result not only of 150 years' worth of paintings depicting signature vistas of mountains, plains and canyons, but all those postcards, magazine images, placemats and movie backdrops that are ubiquitous in our culture.
For traditional painters and photographers, the task is easy: Find a majestic sight and record it as accurately as possible. For contemporary painters and photographers, the job is complicated, because they want to refer to the Western landscape but need a new twist. This is the premise of Grounded, a good-looking exhibit at Sandy Carson Gallery that pairs landscape-based abstract paintings by Denver artist Lui Ferreyra with Houston photographer Peter Brown's photos of roadside landmarks.
I first encountered Ferreyra's distinctive work a few years ago, when he was focusing his attention on the depiction of the figure. I really liked what he was doing, with the results beautifully expressing the figure while creating a visually intriguing and elegantly conceived abstraction. Despite the difference in subject matter, Ferreyra's methodology was essentially the same then as it is with these landscapes. He fractures the imagery in the picture by reducing it to a non-repeating pattern of geometric shapes. There are reverberations of cubism in this, but also references to digitization and — I kid you not — paint-by-numbers. The forms in his paintings (mountains, in this case) are merely suggested as opposed to being literally defined, and different shapes are carried out in different colors. To convey the scene, the artist turns to these colors more than shapes to establish the formal arrangement of the composition and to distinguish the recognizable features of the landscape.
Interestingly, Ferreyra's landscapes are more naturalistic when viewed from across the room instead of up close. This is because in their mind's eye, viewers meld the different-colored shapes into broad areas of hybrid hues. In that way, the colors turn into forms, allowing the mountains to come into focus, as in "Continuum 1," a marvelous oil on canvas. All of the paintings in the show are from the "Continuum" series, and each has been joined by its preparatory drawing. I was surprised that Ferreyra even did drawings — I'd have guessed he'd use a laser print as a study — but there's no denying that these lyrical works on paper are very cool on their own.
In the back spaces at Sandy Carson are Brown's large-format Cibachrome prints that capture the vanishing rural life of the West. Brown, a nationally known photographer with a three-decade-long career, teaches at Rice University.
The gorgeous color shots are from his "West of Last Chance" group. To make them, Brown uses a deep focus, which brings us into the pictures. He often looks for scenes with minimalist elements, like the tabletop-flat field that's been plowed into straight furrows, unfolding beneath a crystal clear sky. In others, he appropriates the monumentality of boarded-up stores or rusting farm buildings. Brown's work is part of a school of photography in which straightforward documentary images are imbued with sociological narratives — in this case, the decline of country life.
Aesthetically, Ferreyra's paintings have nothing in common with Brown's photos, but their shared interest in the West makes the two artists an interesting and compatible pair.
The same could be said about husband-and-wife painters Tracy and Sushe Felix, who come together in The Nature of Things, at William Havu Gallery.
The couple's paintings are often exhibited together, and since both look to early-twentieth-century transcendentalism, there are conceptual links connecting their efforts. But their styles are distinctive, and no one could ever confuse Tracy's work with Sushe's.
Tracy embraces a naturalistic set of colors and simplifies the pieces of the scenery by employing soft, nature-based lines to carry out real or imaginary Western scenes. Mountains are little more than curved lines, forests are field of dots or triangles, clouds are fluffy and somewhat amorphous blobs. But despite the simplification and the cartoon-like reduction of the scenery, which was inspired by the retro-abstraction of Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park, according to Felix, it's obvious we're looking at the Rockies.
Tracy's work refers to the history of early modern art in the region, especially the cubo-regionalist landscapes by Charles Bunnell. Perhaps this self-conscious historicism is what makes his pieces so compatible with historic landscapes and is the reason they hang cheek-by-jowl with his stylistic predecessors in several of the state's museums.
Very different in style, Sushe's work embraces a bold and vivid palette, with tons of yellow, orange and red. Her formal elements are only occasionally evocative of representational imagery and never literal depictions of a scene in nature.
Her paintings, drawings and collages don't typically have a horizon line, and while recognizable parts of the landscape, especially trees and sky, play a role, they're not where they should be. In a piece like the wonderful "Aspen Grove," overlapping and interlocking arcs of color rise through the middle. On top, Sushe has arranged black eyelet shapes to suggest the lost limbs of the trees, as well as arrangements of short black lines to bring to mind the folds of the bark. Across the top are polka dots of various sizes, done in varied colors meant to be read as leaves. But even knowing all this, the picture still comes across as a total abstraction.
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In "Aspen Grove" and the similar "Tree House," Sushe lays out a predominantly vertical composition juxtaposed with diagonal elements, resulting in a grill-like arrangement of lines that resemble a gate. In a number of other paintings, she embraces spirals as the pieces' underlying structure. In works such as "Flying South and "Birds of a Feather," the viewer's eyes are led in a circular way beginning at the edges of the panels and eventually winding up at the centers. This approach is based on the Indian mandala, a depiction of the universe used as an aid in meditation. Sushe sees these spiral arrangements as infusing her paintings with spiritual content.
Surprisingly, Sushe has incorporated bird shapes into her paintings, making them appear lighthearted, if not whimsical. That's probably why I could easily imagine them being carried out as fabrics or rugs.
Like Tracy, Sushe has been collected by museums, and she, too, does work that is widely compatible with other approaches to the landscape. That may be because she also looks back at the history of regional art, though in her case it's less specific — even if Raymond Jonson does readily come to mind.
Grounded at Sandy Carson and The Nature of Things at William Havu demonstrate that there's much more to Western art than those sentimental takes on the cowboy-and-Indian tradition that are ubiquitous in the area. And with the National Western Stock Show in town, it seems the right time to think about this.