Common Sense | Arts | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado

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...
Share this:
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.

Denver's Dale Chisman is another highly regarded abstract artist whose prints are available from Havu while his paintings are sold elsewhere, in his case at Rule Modern and Contemporary. The two fabulous--and gigantic--Chisman monotypes included in 12 Artists are from his notable "History" series, done a few years ago, in which Chisman makes stylistic references to his artistic influences. Both of these monotypes incorporate collage elements. In "History 1," a vertical yellow line seems to roughly divide the composition; a rich red field, including a variety of tones, provides the backdrop for fragments of black-and-white prints that Chisman has partially printed over. For "History 2," Chisman uses some lighthearted blue-and-white-patterned wallpaper to anchor the dark shades of blue and amber that dominate the picture.

Arvada artist Emilio Lobato also relies on collage to create abstractions. In "Octavio," an oil and collage on canvas, he tries his hand at geometry. Although Lobato has long used rectangular book pages as pictorial elements, this piece is somewhat uncharacteristic. The picture is divided into four squares arranged in a grid; moving from top left to bottom right is a series of partial circles that quickly lead the eye through the painting. To this Lobato adds the die-cut numerals 3 and 5.

The show coninues under the mezzanine with smaller pieces by Luis Eades, Judith Lightfield and Jean Roller. Boulder painter Eades has an idiosyncratic style, one both hyper-realistic and surrealistic. In the crisply rendered oil on canvas "Pisces," a cooked fish on a plate is set on a "table" made from a ferocious-looking prehistoric fish fossil, while brightly colored living fish swim in the foreground. Denver's Lightfield displays her ability to create inner light with paint on three small landscapes, all featuring expressively handled trees standing against opalescent skies at dusk. Her expert use of dark shades of green and pink lend these paintings a pleasingly mysterious shrouded quality. For example, in "Alone," an acrylic on canvas, a flame-like tree is placed just off-center before an indefinite background that may include rolling hills. Between the Eades and Lightfield paintings are the only three-dimensional pieces in the show, all by Roller and all reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp, "Id Cabinet" in particular.

Work by the last two of the twelve occupies the upstairs mezzanine. Denver's Tony Ortega is represented by a quartet of his highly individualistic pastels on paper, all depicting street scenes. Ortega has been with Havu for fifteen years, and to celebrate the fact, a major survey exhibit of his work is set for next month at the gallery. Maryland artist Gunnar Plake may be from back East, but he sets his sights on the familiar Western landscape in his three photographs. Elegantly mounted on aluminum sheets, these photos are not just blurry, they're downright painterly. Plake achieves the effect by manipulating the photo while it's still film in the camera, not later in the darkroom.

12 Artists in Common is a very good show, with an even better idea behind it. Too bad the DAM itself only rarely thinks of devoting a show to local artists included in its permanent collection.

Among the scores of galleries in Denver and its environs, only a few dozen play any real role in the contemporary art world. And sadly, two from that elite short list, the CSK Gallery and the Round World Gallery, shut their doors in the last months of 1998.

Kent and Colleen Shira opened CSK Gallery with great expectations nearly five years ago. They leased a two-story space on then-prestigious Wazee Street, planning to locate the gallery on the ground floor and a print shop in the basement. And not just any print shop: CSK formed an inno-vative partnership with a prominent local publisher of prints, Open Press, which is run by Mark Lunning. The idea was that Open Press would produce prints downstairs while CSK would sell them upstairs. But the deal soon went sour, and Lunning moved out within a year, taking some of the area's best-known artists with him.

The gallery recovered from this split, however. At first CSK handled print production as well as art sales, with Colleen running the gallery and Kent, a distinguished printmaker in his own right, taking over the print shop. Later the basement space was spun off to Fuel, a computer-graphics firm.

What really did CSK in was all the construction activity along Wazee last year. Despite its high-profile location, CSK was often hidden behind scaffolding and dirt left by a sidewalk remodeling and the remodeling of a nearby space into Il Fornaio. And even when you could see the gallery, it was almost impossible to enter--getting into CSK required navigating the hazardous and muddy alley where a temporary entrance was located.

The Shiras were compensated all along for these inconveniences by their landlord, and they've been bought out of their lease. But whatever they received, it can't compensate them--or the art scene--for the destruction of a once-promising gallery.

Although Round World, opened in 1997 by David Teplitzky and Peggy Scott, was not surrounded by heavy equipment and barricades, its location was just as tough as CSK's. Access to the gallery was through an inconspicuous and minimally marked side door on 22nd Street--even though its official address was on Arapahoe.

Still, Round World started strong, mounting shows with some of the biggest names in the art world, including Willem de Kooning, Jenny Holzer and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But business was nowhere near as good as the art, and sluggish sales finally forced the pair to close the gallery. "We had zero foot traffic," Teplitzky says, adding that he and Scott will continue to work as private dealers and remain active in the local art scene. That's already evidenced in the impressive Sans Titre show, highlighting their personal collection, which just opened at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.

Although gallery closures are a familiar feature of the art business, it's still a shock to lose ones as worthy as CSK and Round World--and a sorry way to end the year.

12 Artists in Common, through February 6 at the William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360.

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.