Pride of Place

Since relocating to the Golden Triangle from LoDo last fall, the William Havu Gallery (formerly the 1/1 Gallery) has greatly expanded its stable of artists. Among the recently snagged talents are those of husband-and-wife painting team Tracy and Sushe Felix, whose latest efforts are featured in the captivating exhibit New Work by Felix & Felix.

Havu's elegant gallery, the work of the Denver architectural firm of Humphries Poli, has the atmosphere of a small museum. But the multiplicity of interior spaces and the use of movable walls has given gallery director Bill Havu some trouble in terms of installation in the past. The handsome and cogent hanging of Felix & Felix indicates that Havu has begun to fully realize the possibilities of his custom-designed space.

Tracy Felix's landscapes are in the entryway and main room, while his wife Sushe's abstracts are in the central and back areas. Scattered around Sushe's paintings and filling the middle of the room are several of her small sculptures of nudes. Havu's decision to give the two artists their separate spaces is a good one, because despite the fact that both share conceptual interests, their final products are only vaguely related. By separating their work, Havu allows viewers to make sense of each artist's singular approach.

Tracy Felix creates readily recognizable landscapes that are characterized by his conventionalization of Western scenery. Trees are suggested by hundreds of dots, rocks are conveyed through big sculptural shapes, clouds are either wisps or blobs. And his palette is simplified, too, limited to the tones expected of a landscape: green, brown, blue and white. (Tracy's version of this small list of hues involves the use of dozens of additional shades, either mixed together or set next to one another).

The reduction and simplification of the scenery has led some to observe that Tracy's landscapes are like cartoons. It's an idea he firmly rejects. "I feel that my work is a continuation of the local tradition of Western landscape painting going all the way back to Bierstadt and Moran and going through the '20s and '30s, '40s and '50s and right up to the present," he says. "I feel like I'm a part of that same group; I feel like my work is not so different from theirs. I'm coming at the landscape from a historic perspective."

Particularly important to Tracy are the artists who were active in New Mexico and in Colorado Springs at mid-century, especially the modernists such as Andrew Dasburg, Ward Lockwood and, "of course, Charlie Bunnell." But Tracy is quick to distinguish what he's doing from the many contemporary landscape painters whose work, according to him, constitutes nothing more than "ripoffs of the past." Tracy's goal, instead, is to create work that refers to local art history but at the same time becomes something fresh and new. "I'm manipulating the tradition in a way that I hope is unique," Tracy says.

Tracy is self-taught as an art historian and an artist. Born in the San Luis Valley in 1957, he moved to Colorado Springs as a boy. In the late 1970s, Tracy, who was already a serious painter, went to work at the Frameworks Gallery in Colorado Springs. The Frameworks, which still exists, was then owned by sculptor Bill Burgess. (Interestingly enough, Burgess has just been picked up by Havu, and there are a handful of his sculptures now on exhibit at the gallery.) Through his job as manager of Frameworks, Tracy met many of the city's best artists, including a core of mostly now-deceased old-timers who originally sparked his interest in exploring the rich legacy of art history in the region.

Tracy developed a real expertise and briefly operated his own gallery, the Tracy Felix Artspace, in Colorado Springs in the mid-1980s. He later became a freelance curator for both historic and contemporary exhibits at the Pioneers Museum and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. During this time, he was developing his peculiar painting style; he achieved his greatest career break when his work was included in the still-important Colorado 1990 exhibit, which was held to great popular and critical acclaim at the Denver Art Museum. (The show was said to be the first of a series of biennials focusing on contemporary art in Colorado, but as it turned out, it was the last major exhibit devoted to locals at the DAM.)

It was in Colorado 1990 that most Denverites first saw Tracy's landscapes, but in the intervening years, his paintings have become familiar to many. His work has been displayed at a number of the city's finest commercial galleries, and his pieces are also included in a number of public and private collections--most notably, the DAM's.

Felix & Felix begins with a pair of Tracy's mountain scenes in oil on board, his exclusive method. On the left is "Mount of the Holy Cross," from 1997; on the right, "Baca-Grant Ranch," from 1991. These two pieces are the only older paintings in the show, everything else having been completed either late last year or earlier this year. The older paintings beg a comparison to the newer ones, which reveals that Tracy's latest efforts do not so much mark a break as a continuation of his longtime artistic concerns. There are some subtle changes. The older paintings are flatter, with a tighter perspective, and the skies feature clouds in a large cluster off to one side. In the newer ones, the clouds are more symmetrically organized in an even pattern across the sky.

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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