“Abstract Impulse: Mike Hollis & Ibsen Espada”

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Messengers, 2014, Ibsen Espada
Ink on billboard canvas, 48″ x 36″
Photo: courtesy Zoya Tommy Gallery

Two major schools of abstraction are represented by the Houston painters in this exhibition. Puerto Rican-born Ibsen Espada favors gestural abstraction incorporating elements of calligraphy and graffiti art, while Texas native Michael Hollis is a classic modernist with a focus on elemental forms and smooth surfaces. For years, Espada painted on rice paper and mounted it on canvas. He also experimented with collage, slicing the rice-paper paintings into strips and assembling them into new works. Now, Espada is painting on Tyvek®, a type of plastic used for billboards, rather than paper. He salvages used Tyvek® from a billboard company near his studio and searches through the discarded material until he finds an image, words, or numbers to which he responds. After stretching it like canvas, he layers on various materials, including acrylic, oil crayon, spray paint and even carborandum, an abrasive compound that lends the surface a subtle sparkle. In some pieces like Messenger, Espada nearly obscures the base image, while in others like Yellow Zebra, he simply adds black stripes. As a major force in gestural abstraction in Houston since the early 1980s, Espada exhibits the confidence and control that come with maturity but still retains a vitality that evokes the vibrant music and tropical ambiance of his homeland.

Hollis is a decades-long devotee of geometric abstraction who works within personally defined limits of color, shape and pattern. Like Espada, Hollis does not always begin with a blank surface. In Imperial, he starts by affixing a photograph of a repeating pattern to a panel and then paints a blue band across the top. Next he adds three geometric shapes-two elongated triangles and a thin blue arc-to the right side of the piece, before building up the surface with epoxy resin until it is smooth and glossy. In two other paintings, Hollis uses an argyle pattern framed by bands of color, and in Huisache, he overlays a strip of argyle onto a field of cell-like shapes. He has little interest in representing the natural world and eliminates brushstrokes and physical texture altogether, avoiding any emotion or angst in his work. The result is a distinctive, elegant take on modernism with its emphasis on form rather than content.

Both of these master painters continue to experiment with new materials and techniques while maintaining their continuity of style. Espada’s work exudes the passion and tempo of the islands, and Hollis’s paintings have the cool detachment of modernism after WWII. The result is a thought-provoking discourse on the nature of abstraction.