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

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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