Humming Along

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"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.

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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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