The World Cup Collides With Machismo

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Peter Howson's imagination is haunted by machismo.

His reputation, as one of a group of rapidly successful artists to come out of the Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s, has been built on gargoyle images of boxers, vagrants, thugs - lowlife figments of his home city's folklore, thick creatures of hyperbolic musculature and hideousness.

There is fierce irony in his work: One senses that the grotesque body-building exaggerations are a mask under which cowardice lurks. Yet Howson hardly denies his attraction to such subjects, and a certain ambivalence exists in his work. It's as if he finds the power of his paintbrush to depict brawn rewarding, possibly releasing. It would seem he has chosen to adopt a draftsmanship and brushwork of gross insensitivity in order to match the crude brutality of his subjects.

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Howson is no realist. His art ranges beyond fact. As a war artist, commissioned to "record" the Bosnian conflict, he resorted as much to hearsay and report as to direct observation for his subject matter. And he succeeded, in ways a photographer could not, in conveying unmitigated degrees of horror. He did so in an age when we are supposedly numbed by too much exposure to images of violence.

His Bosnian pictures are as appalling in their way as works by Max Beckmann or Goya. And they have accrued, as yet, no veneer of historical taste or gloss of familiarity. They are tasteless.

After his Bosnian experiences, Howson says he has found a degree of personal contentment. Perhaps this is reflected in his rather celebratory, exuberant paintings of soccer, exhibited in London to coincide with the World Cup. One of them is shown here. (The World Cup championship match is July 12.)

Boyish images of footballing heroes belong as much to a juvenile fantasy as to the kind of before-the-fact advertising that has to make generalized imagery speak presciently for future events.

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