Common Sense

Many collectors are interested in buying so-called museum-quality artwork. For a gallery owner, the trick is to convince potential clients that what they're looking at could just as easily hang in a museum as in their own home. But Bill Havu, owner of the William Havu Gallery, came up with a surefire solution with his 12 Artists in Common, an exhibit that brings together the disparate talents of a dozen artists that he represents. All twelve have something else in common, though: Their work is included in the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum.

Since the art museum is "the big dog on the block," Havu explains, he'd wanted to tie a show to the DAM for some time. But while his gallery is a private, for-profit business, the museum is a public, nonprofit institution, and he had to think of a way to trade on the DAM's good name while keeping the concept in good taste. He succeeded: A hefty 40 percent of each sale--half from Havu, half from the artist--is going to the DAM's Modern and Contemporary department. "I don't care how they spend the money; we put no limitations on it," says Havu. And the gift is growing: Within days of the show's January 8 opening, Havu had already sold four paintings.

But 12 Artists in Common is not just a bold marketing move. It was also an intelligent curatorial decision. As organized by Havu and gallery director Jay Sarria, this show is "museum-quality" in every way.

The art starts even before you formally enter Havu's new building in the Golden Triangle, thanks to the vast expanses of glass that form the majority of the gallery's facade. Two fabulous landscapes, both views of Longs Peak, are visible from the sidewalk. In the large show window to the right is "Skyline Longs Peak," an acrylic on canvas by Merrill Mahaffey, a former Coloradan now living in Santa Fe who's renowned for his dense and painterly depictions of Western scenery. His mastery of the paint-laden brush is breathtaking, and it's well-displayed in this close-up look at the very top of the mountain. Using thick strokes laid in diagonal lines, Mahaffey somehow manages to capture an almost photographic reproduction of rock against sky.

To the left, just inside the door, is a very different view of the same mountain. In "Longs Peak," Tracy Felix conventionalizes the scene's details. Clouds are cushion-edged, trees conveyed through tiny triangular daubs, and the colors are only nominally related to their corollaries in nature. Felix's inspiration is not just the mountain itself, but the entire tradition of landscape painting as it developed in the early twentieth century in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. This approach has been successful for Felix, both artistically and financially, for over a decade, and the show gets off to a good start with several of his pieces.

Adjacent to Tracy Felix's landscapes are the hard-edged abstractions of Sushe Felix, the other half of the Manitou Springs-based painting pair. In the magnificent and meticulous "Red Sky," an acrylic on masonite, Felix evokes the Front Range under a blazing sun by setting a series of darkly shaded triangles against a yellow sphere on a red field. Sushe Felix's skillful blending of shades, along with her attention to detail, makes paintings such as this technically as well as aesthetically appealing: She's a whiz with paint. And fortunately for Havu, she became eligible for this show just in time, when the DAM acquired one of her pieces at the end of last year.

Like Sushe Felix, Denver artist Jeremy Hillhouse uses landscapes as a take-off point for abstractions. But that's where the similarity ends. While Felix lays on a seamless flat surface with clear divisions between her colors, Hillhouse favors a scabrous texture with one shade painted over another. In "Stream Crossing," an acrylic on canvas, he offers an aerial view of two streams crossing on the prairie. Here he's laid the paint on very thick, apparently using a combing tool in lieu of a brush; there's strongly toned red and blue in the underpainting, but Hillhouse almost completely paints the bright shades out with greens and browns laid on top. "Winter River," a related acrylic on canvas, depicts an overhead view of a simplified river, sparely conveyed through a smeary gray bar meandering through a mauve field.

At first glance, the two monotypes by Santa Fe artist Sam Scott appear completely abstract. But that's not the case, since Scott always bases his compositions on landscapes, often views of his own garden--even if it's hard to make out specific details. Both "Hawk in the Sky XII" and the closely associated "Landscape Dancer XIV" are covered with scribbles and smudges carried out in black and gray ink on a ground of red over yellow. Although Scott's paintings are represented by the Robischon Gallery, Havu has been selling his prints since 1983, and so he qualified for the show's concept.

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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