The interwoven fabric of a Mystic artist’s work

“Street Life,” denim fabric on canvas, 2013, by Will Holub
“Street Life,” denim fabric on canvas, 2013, by Will Holub

There are representational and nonrepresentational artists. There are those who incorporate figurative elements in abstract work, and there are those whose work evolves from one style to the other.

Will Holub of Mystic doesn't fit any of these categories. An artist whose work is represented in public and private collections across the U.S. and Europe, he describes his art as syncopated, switching back and forth from realism to nonobjective minimalism.

Currently in an abstract phase, Holub's new body of work in fabric and mixed media is on view in a solo show at Gallery 19 in Essex.

His fabric works use the same material for both support and surface in grids of hand-torn fabric strips - the edges of which he feathers thread-by-thread to create richly detailed overlaps and dramatic, tufted intersections.

His paper works are made up of hand-torn white card stock fragments glued to stretched canvas or linen in mandala-like circular patterns. They evoke southeastern Connecticut's rocky landscape.

Although his various portrait series and textural abstractions may not appear to have much in common, according to Holub, his journey is pretty much the same.

"My abstract and realist styles of art-making are both built on process-driven methods and carefully considered ideas," he says.

Holub refers to all of his work as "Contemporary Romanticism" - the banner on his website - because "although I'm an idea-driven artist, I also rely upon my intuition and emotional responses to inform all of the work."

ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER

Holub started his professional career in New York in the 1970s as a realistic painter and continued in that vein until the AIDS epidemic broke out in the mid-1980s.

"This was the primary catalyst for changing to abstract work," he says. "After all, my realist work had always been about people, so seeing AIDS take the lives of friends and colleagues - and particularly my cousin and his partner, both of whom I had painted - made it too painful to continue painting so literally. By 1987, I was simply getting down to the basics of materials and process without any specific focus on 'the real.'"

Holub continued his abstract work in paper until in 1992 he left New York for Sante Fe, where, after seeing his work, people began commissioning him to do portraits.

"By the end of the 1990s I was missing my abstract work because it always felt more intuitive and playful to me," he says. "By 1999 (while in Sante Fe) I was exhibiting my grid-based torn paper pieces, was given a solo show, and began to be represented by a major gallery, and entered into the most successful period of my career in the art business."

In 2008 Holub left New Mexico and moved to Mystic to take care of his elderly parents. He began to paint series of portraits because he could work on them "piecemeal" while caring for his parents.

These included "Lucky Strike: WWII Army Air Force Navigators," a series of nine oil paintings dedicated to the memory of his father, William Holub, a decorated World War II veteran, who died in 2009 at the age of 90. The paintings are based on 1942 photographs of the officer candidates his father trained with in Texas.

He also painted "Proof of Heaven: Women of the Golden Age"; a series of eight oil paintings based on vintage black-and-white publicity stills produced during the Hollywood studio-system era.

"After my parents passed away and I was free of those obligations, I decided I would work in tandem with the two styles. I would do a realistic painting followed by an abstract work - I decided to syncopate them."

Because his abstract work was influenced by his love of reductive, minimalist works by artists like Robert Mangold, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman and Donald Judd, Holub says, "It was a natural next step to eliminate the paper and reduce the work to its basics where it's all fabric, simplifying its components and counter-intuitively amplifying the impact of the work on the viewer."

His fabric works, he says, were propelled forward by a chance meeting with Mary Juillet-Paonessa, owner of CT Quilt Works in Mystic.

"She welcomed my interest in fabrics and their use in my new work and sold me the cotton fabric that I used in my 2013 piece, 'Everybody Dance,' which won Best in Show in a national exhibition at the Masur Museum of Art in Louisiana," he says. "Never underestimate the importance of serendipity in life and art making!

"After 27 years of working with paper, fabric seems very alive, very vital in a way that the paper never has," he adds.

Holub says people, and particularly children, have always wanted to touch his art, confirming how tactile artworks trigger sense memories of the same physical acts used to make them, and in the case of his work, every one has ripped fabric, torn paper and rubbed surfaces.

"Because the fabric works are unprotected and more akin to traditional tapestries, touching can damage them," he notes, "so anyone who wants to touch them will just have to buy them first!"

Will Holub: Fabric and Mixed Media Works at Gallery 19.
Will Holub: Fabric and Mixed Media Works at Gallery 19.

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