Clear Horizons

Though Recent Works, which opened last weekend at the William Havu Gallery, is billed as a group show, it's been installed as four distinct presentations, and thus is more like a quartet of solos. This is for the best, because each of the artists has an individual approach, and they aren't thoroughly compatible with one another.

The show begins in the main space with a series of recent pieces by Sushe Felix, a well-respected Manitou Springs-based painter who's been exhibiting in Denver since the late 1980s. For this show, Felix has created fifteen closely associated mixed-media-on-board paintings. All of them are abstractions based on landscape and still-life scenes.

"Essentially, all the paintings are the same," Felix points out. "More than any other show I've done at Havu, really more than any other show ever, this is the most unified series of paintings I've done."

Like her previous work, these paintings, from a series called "East Meets West," reflect the influence of early-twentieth-century abstraction, particularly transcendentalism. The compositions are made up of a series of abstract episodes that seem to churn into one another, leading the eyes of the viewer to circle around the edges of the picture. The initial visual draw in this series is a white circle that appears in each of the paintings. "I love circles; they help me to keep the paintings abstract," Felix says. "I don't think of the circles as representing the moon or something like that, but since these are nature-based abstractions, people are going to think of them that way, and that's all right."

There are several other elements that connect these paintings to one another, most notably the Chinese characters and Chinese-derived depictions of stylized flowers and trees. Felix acknowledges, however, that she's mostly been looking at the work of American abstractionists from the 1930s and '40s -- artists from Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere -- rather than Oriental art. "I'm very uneducated in Asian art, in these paintings," she says. "I was going for a certain look, and I wasn't scholarly about it at all." Even the Chinese characters are meant to have a decorative role as opposed to a narrative one. "I'm very fascinated by the way the Chinese characters look. The ones I used either repeat the title of the piece or describe it, and there aren't little secrets or messages in them. They're just used for their design."

The genesis of this series took place a few years ago, when Felix found herself becoming more and more interested in the architecture, design sense, food, dress, movies and languages of Asia. At the time, she did a series of Oriental-flavored pastel drawings, which led to a group of Japanese-inspired ceramic geisha sculptures. In these small tabletop pieces, Felix created highly abstract figures that broadly refer to the geishas through the inclusion of a fan or by the handling of the hair. According to Felix, the geisha sculptures, in turn, led directly to the new paintings. (The sculptures are included at Havu, but unfortunately, they've been marooned upstairs rather than being paired with the pieces downstairs.)

All of the paintings feature the same accomplished technique, and all are beautifully crafted. The visual activity happens within a broken border, with hard-edged, stepped margins that roughly follow the contours of the frame. In a painting such as the meticulous "Still Life With Sun Flowers," crisply painted passages are linked by, and juxtaposed with, gauzy ones. In addition, half the painting is bright and half is dark. These contrasts and others -- as in the use of hot shades against cool ones -- create a visual tension.

"Sun Flowers" is one of the smallest of the paintings of many sizes that Felix has in the show, but the same approach to color and composition is seen in all of them, including the largest one here, the wonderful "Spring Garden."

Gallery director Bill Havu has filled most of the remainder of the main space with the work of Felix's husband, Tracy Felix. He has also exhibited around town since the late '80s and has also worked in response to the local pioneers of modernism. "I've always been influenced by the early regional artists," he says. "But lately, the influence of Bunnell has been more important. I like the way he took the landscape in and out of abstraction." Felix is referring to the late Charles Bunnell, a modernist associated with the now-defunct Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School and a subject of renewed interest in the last few years. (Bunnell's work may be seen at David Cook Fine Art on Wazee Street.)

Bunnell's influence is clear in a group of paintings in which Felix reduces the mountains and the clouds to geometric shapes; he refers to these as his cubist paintings. In "Colorado Abstract," an oil on board where the mountains lean precariously and the sky is littered with rectangular clouds, there's a planar conception of pictorial space that has been instinctually, not mathematically, derived.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia