Challenging Male

Steve Huston: The Works

At Sullivan Goss, through June 7.

Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott

There’s something so deeply traditional about Steve Huston’s paintings, now on display at Sullivan Goss through June 7, that it almost feels perverse. Here is an art form that is as much about the Western history of art as it is about the boxers and construction workers it depicts. The first example confronts you as you enter the door: “The Battler,” an image of a boxer at rest, offers an unmistakable rendition of the Belvedere torso, perhaps the most quoted male form in the West during the last 500 years. The lighting is unabashedly Rembrandtian, as is the foregrounding of apparently still-viscous paint (an illusion created by glazing). As with any image of a boxer that references Rembrandt, this one also strongly suggests the work of George Bellows, although the figural type is both more heroic and more mannerist: more like Michelangelo perhaps, or Rubens at his most convoluted. At the same time, the handling has a nervousness to it, a ropy vulnerability that brings Lucien Freud to mind.

In other pieces, references to specific types of art abound: There is a fallen boxer-as-pieta, workers in a field in the manner of Daumier or Courbet, action painting quoted as painting-within-painting, a lively imitation of early American trompe l’œil, and a composition courtesy of Caravaggio. Huston’s palette often makes it seem as if the synthetic pigments of the 19th century have yet to be invented: Out of a background of earth tones glow carmine red and lapis blue.

Three hundred years ago, any artist worth his or her salt would have been expected to participate in exactly this self-conscious process of selection, imitation, and quotation. But didn’t that whole aesthetic cosmology supposedly break down somewhere in the middle of Ingres’s career? When was the last time you went to an exhibition by a living artist that centered on figures clearly derived from life drawing, around whole, powerfully muscled, working-class male figures? I tried seeing the show as homoerotic — at least then I could have pigeon-holed it — but didn’t have any luck. In a work like “The Pillows” Huston demonstrates that he knows how to push Venus into the realm of the pornographic, but that’s not the aesthetic at work in most of the pieces.

Maybe we’ve just gotten too used to art that looks comfortable in peoples’ houses. It’s difficult to imagine these works anywhere but in a museum. What would you do with one of these in your living room? Either you’d just simply baffle people, or you’d have to start cultivating more interesting friends, ones who would actually sit around and look at the thing and talk about it. Wait — wasn’t last week national turn-off-your-TV week? I guess you’d have to make that a regular habit.

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