Humming Along

Colorado painter Sushe Felix has been listening to a lot of old jazz lately. Especially important to her are the pieces that interpret the classics written by Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen. She also likes Burt Bacharach numbers, especially the way Dusty Springfield sings them.

Felix listens to the music while she paints, and it inspired her to name some of her latest pieces after famous songs. In her show at the William Havu Gallery, Abstract Symbols From Nature and the Unconscious, there are paintings titled "Misty," "Skylark" and "Nothing but Bluebirds."

Felix was born in Colorado Springs in 1958 and was interested in art from childhood. She has a BFA from Arizona State University and did graduate work there and at the University of Colorado at Boulder. When she first broke on the Denver scene, in the mid-1980s, Felix established her early reputation with wild neo-expressionist paintings that incorporated fabrics and fake fur, glitter and rhinestones. The edgy cartoon-like paintings were carried out in the loudest colors imaginable. Her subjects were animals and human figures, all of them set in vaguely allegorical scenes.

She debuted this sort of thing at a funky little art spot in LoDo, a neighborhood that was then littered with funky little art spots. Her work was an immediate hit with the art-buying public (the style was a national trend) and with the critics of that era. But all that wildness was not really right for her, and she made the first of several major stylistic changes. "I tried being sloppy, but it never satisfied me," Felix says. Changing what you do is a risky thing for a young artist who has found a popular route, but Felix never cared about being commercial, only with finding her own way aesthetically.

Living in Manitou Springs with husband Tracy, who is also a painter, Felix discovered an interest in the regionalist scene that had flourished in Colorado Springs during the '30s and '40s. The couple collected the work and met many of the artists who were still living in the area. They both also began to reflect regionalist influences in their paintings -- though, interestingly enough, their work does not look anything alike.

One of the artists Sushe Felix hooked up with was Eric Bransby, who is in his nineties. Bransby had been a student of Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson, two of the great regionalists. "I wanted to do the figurative thing, but I had gotten tired of doing that weird '80s stuff, so I sought out Eric," Felix says. Bransby took an old-fashioned approach, however, and his process was very rigorous, with innumerable studies done for a single painting. That took the fun out of it for Felix, and after a year and a half she went off on her own again. Still, the work from her Bransby period shows that she could have flourished in the traditional scene.

In 1991, Felix started breaking up the space in her paintings and making them more abstract. She did that for a year or so and then gave up the figure in her paintings, though she still uses figural forms in her ceramic sculptures. About that time, a new interest among scholars, dealers and collectors was being directed toward modern art in New Mexico from the mid-twentieth century, in particular the work of the transcendentalists. Felix became aware of their work through books, magazines and trips to Santa Fe.

"When I first came across them, it was artists such as Raymond Jonson, Agnes Pelton and Emil Bisttram that stood out," recalls Felix. "Their compositions are very geometric; however, there's also a connection to the earth, and I found that combination fascinating." Picking up on the newly discovered transcendentalists, Felix positioned herself on the cutting edge of retro painting, which came on strong about ten years ago.

The challenge for Felix was conveying the Colorado landscape in a way similar to that of the transcendentalists, and putting a sense of spirituality into it, as they had done. "I did this through the forms," says Felix, "especially the circle, which I see as an archetypal shape that has long symbolized the self. And even more than that, there's the color, which I see as being very spiritual." Felix also sees her paintings as expressing emotions. "There's turmoil in the paintings, like bad weather coming in, and I think this turmoil is an emotional element."

Felix has been addressing those concerns ever since. And even though she's settled into neo-transcendentalism, change is still a regular feature of her work -- just not the radical shifts in style that occurred earlier in her career. For example, the paintings in Abstract Symbols are still neo-transcendentalist, but they are different from her efforts of the past couple of years.

"They're still from nature," says Felix, "but they're much more abstract, like the ones I did ten years ago or more."

All of the paintings at Havu have essentially the same assortment of shapes and devices, though each has been uniquely composed. "The compositions come with my desire to put together forms in a very specific and organized way, controlling them," explains Felix. "The result is very stable and controlled, but there's a lot of movement, too." This inherent dynamism is why viewers' eyes move smoothly around the painting, shifting focus from one element to the next.

"Over the Rainbow" hangs facing the door. In the center is a stylized geometric mountain; at the base is a skyline that looks more like Denver's than the Emerald City's. The rainbow reference is reinforced by the rays of light in the sky and by the meandering dots that run up one side. The palette juxtaposes hot shades, including orange, red and yellow, in the middle, with cool blues, grays and whites around the edges. Other monumental abstract landscapes include "From This Moment On," "Let It Snow," "Some Rain Must Fall" and "Cry Me a River." In every one, Felix assembles circles, rectangles, arcs, bars and lines to convey the landscape instead of trying to reproduce it accurately. The small works, such as "Bye Bye Blackbird," are more literal, though still not traditionally representational.

Felix has crammed a lot of ideas and details into these paintings -- references to the landscape, to transcendentalism and to herself -- but they succeed because they're really beautiful. The art world has been unusually crowded with attractions for this time of year, so I got around to reviewing Felix's show later than I wanted to, and I need to warn you: It closes this weekend. If you haven't gone yet, do it immediately or sooner.

Sushe Felix's paintings have titles like "Over the Rainbow," so it was a delightful surprise to hear that same song -- the famous Judy Garland version -- playing on the sound system at the Sandra Phillips Gallery. That tune and others from the same era are being used as accompaniment to Ruth Todd: A Tribute, made up of abstract-expressionist works by this longtime Denver-area artist.

"Ruth picked out all the music," says Sandra Phillips, owner of her namesake gallery. "Isn't it wonderful? I've been dancing around here since the opening." The old songs provide a terrific atmosphere for the show, but the work itself is much more radical than this kind of music was; the paintings and collages are more akin to bebop than to the standards of the American songbook.

Artist Craig Marshall Smith was involved in organizing the exhibit, and he's written a loving essay outlining Todd's life and art career. Todd was born in North Carolina in 1909, making her nearly 100 years old. As a young woman in the 1930s, she spent time as a fashion model in New York. She later came to Colorado to be treated for tuberculosis and taught herself to draw. She studied at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center when Robert Motherwell was teaching there as a visiting artist.

By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Todd was a big player in the local contemporary-art scene, producing abstract paintings that were exhibited here and in New York. She was rediscovered in the early '90s thanks to exhibits at the Payton-Rule and Mackey galleries, both of which are now closed. The Todd show at Phillips is the artist's first solo since that time.

The exhibit, like the gallery itself, is very small, and it is not a retrospective. Instead, the selections were made from pieces from Todd's own collection. Almost nothing is dated, and Todd herself can't say when some of them were done, except generally. To my eye, the abstract-expressionist paintings such as "Magma" and "A little cloud all pink and grey, I think I shall not hang myself today," done in oil paint mixed with sawdust, must date from the late '50s or early '60s, because they just have that look. Both are great paintings, perfectly in tune with the national trends of the time, especially her use of something like sawdust to create texture.

More recent, probably from the late '80s or early '90s, are the wooden assemblages made from found boards that are presented as paintings. Surely the strongest of these is "The Silences," a diptych made from a pair of burned wooden panels that are cut into squares and framed but otherwise unaltered from the way she found them. Related to these are the collages made of scraps of wooden sheets arranged into abstract compositions and then put under glass.

Todd's use of sawdust and wood scraps is no accident: Her late husband, Littleton Todd, owned Todd Manufacturing, which specialized in wood products, and he'd bring the materials home for his wife to use.

I think it's great that Sandra Phillips decided to remind us all about Ruth Todd and provide a glimpse of the sophisticated art scene that was obviously flourishing here fifty years ago.

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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

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