Magic Mountains

During the '20s and '30s, artists in Colorado and New Mexico began doing abstractions based on landscape paintings. They took the formal components of a mountain, mesa or rock formation, then simplified the compositions into non-realistic versions of the scene. With the rise of pure abstraction in the post-war period, the hybrid landscape-abstracts were consigned to the trash heap of art history. But in the 1980s, there was a revival of interest in those pioneering artists and their style of work. Among those around here who followed this path, Tracy Felix is one of the best known and most accomplished. It's been nearly three years since he had a solo in town, which makes Tracy Felix, now at William Havu Gallery, a special event. (In fact, this show is the first in memory in which he isn't paired with his wife, Sushe Felix, who will have her own solo at Havu next month.)

Tracy Felix was born in the San Luis Valley, where -- as he only recently found out -- his pioneer family first settled before the Civil War. As a child, he moved with his family to Colorado Springs, where he grew up. Around twenty years ago he married Sushe, and the painting pair set up shop in Manitou Springs. A couple of years ago, they relocated to Lakewood.

For decades, Felix, a self-taught artist, has explored the Rockies as his primary source of inspiration, creating paintings that are part homage to and part parody of the traditional Western landscape painting. To Felix, the Western landscape is an endless subject.

Felix is also an expert in early- to mid-twentieth-century modernism in the region, and he has collected relevant material for many years. He's been involved as a consultant and curator for a number of exhibits exploring the topic, and he's currently in the preliminary stages of curating an exhibit at Golden's Foothills Art Center about the rise of abstraction in Colorado.

"My work is very related to the artwork I collect. I'm very interested in modernist painting from the '30s and '40s in the Colorado Springs area and in New Mexico," notes Felix, who lists Charles Bunnell, William Sanderson, Howard Cook, Cady Wells and Andrew Dasburg among his favorites. "I like the way those artists dissected and modernized the landscape and put their own twist on it."

Another aspect of those paintings is the cartoonish character of the draftsmanship, which is underscored by flat and smooth areas of color. This was particularly true of the Midwestern regionalists, such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, who also inspire Felix. "Their work was very cartoony, and it also has to do with the cartoons I watched on television as a kid. You know, Jellystone Park -- I thought it was so cool," says Felix, referring to Yogi Bear's imaginary home, which had spherical and conical trees and geometric mountains.

Felix works with a severely limited palette of naturalistic colors derived from the landscape: blue, green, white, rust and ocher. "They are the colors I love -- the beautiful blues, the sky colors, the russet colors of the peaks, the wonderful red of the sandstone," says Felix. "I don't like to use too many colors, just the basics."

The Felix paintings at Havu are installed in the main space. There are a dozen new paintings supplemented by a small group of older pieces. Hanging opposite the front door is "The Maroon Bells," which, like everything else in the show, is an oil on panel. It's a classic example of Felix's signature style, in which the scenic elements of sky, mountains and valley are organized into interacting arcs of forms. The clouds in the background frame the peaks in the center, as does the valley in the foreground. The amount of detail that goes into each piece is striking, with tiny shapes assembled to make larger pictorial elements. Felix's paintings are very labor-intensive, so his having completed a dozen in the last six months is quite an accomplishment.

There are a number of works on display that relate closely to "The Maroon Bells" in approach, composition and conception. These include "Wilson Peak" and "Capitol Peak," and they will be the most familiar to viewers because they are done in what could be called Felix's "traditional" style. "My 'traditional' style -- isn't it funny? -- it's very untraditional," says Felix. "But it's what I've been doing for so long that for me, it is traditional."

Felix has also been doing pieces that he describes as "cubist" off and on for a long time. These are geometric treatments of the same kinds of scenes he does in his so-called traditional ones. "The cubist ones are more intimate and more abstracted than my traditional ones," says Felix, who notes that there's much less under-painting, meaning the cubist images are much more instantaneous and direct. There's been increased interest in the works, which Felix credits to a piece on display at the Kirkland Museum, an earlier version of the cubist offerings in the Havu show. "Since that painting was hung in the Kirkland, more people have become interested in my work and are specifically interested in that style," Felix says.

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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