Hell and Back: The Religious Paintings of Peter Howson

Peter Howson has found religion. To longstanding students of this Scottish brutalist-realist the news will be a matter of some surprise, or not. He has dealt with apocalypse for most of his career, and it is clear from often harrowing imagery that here is a man with his own demons. But he is a painter who takes such relish in the underbelly of humanity, dealing out cruel satire, that one wonders how he could paint salvation or bliss.

Howson belongs to the generation of realists who established Glasgow as a significant center of figurative revival in the 1980s. While Adrian Wisniewski and the late Steven Campbell brought respectively fey and fogey twists to the Italian transavanguardia, Howson, with fellow fiery man-of-the people Ken Currie, represented the more social realist side of the Glasgow Boys. Less party line than Currie, who tended towards murals celebrating labor leaders of yore, Howson came to specialize in an extreme mannerism that married a veneer of Renaissance/Old Master technique with moral excoriation of social dystopia. He tapped the mood of anger at economic polarization in a Britain under Margaret Thatcher even if the stylistics seemed a half-century out of date: Satanic mills on fire, street fighting mobs, depraved scenes worthy of Hogarth’s Gin Lane. Stylistically, he is a sort of cross between Thomas Hart Benton and John Currin, but without the humor of either of these Americans. Not that Americans reject him for that – Madonna and, it was reported, Sylvester Stallone became loyal collectors.

Starting out at the legendary Glasgow School of Art in a fully-fledged neo-expressionist style, his work matured through the 1990s from cartoonish “bovver boys” National Front-supporting thugs with bulging neck muscles and bull terriers who looked like their canine twins to sprawling, brooding, hysterical and riotous crowd scenes with lighting to recall the operatic Victorian John Martin and allegory of a neo-medieval sensibility redolent of Bertolt Brecht and early Fritz Lang. His eight-foot wide frieze, Age of Apathy (1992) massed his bull-necked pot-bellied, wife-beater and baseball-cap sporting yobs, many sieg heiling in the general direction of condemned men strung-up on poles. The only female admitted to this mayhem was a dazed, voluptuous blonde lolling her beefy thigh over a pedestal and gazing nonchalantly at the doomed scene.

Later in the 1990s, Howson was picked by the British army as an official war artist and sent to cover Bosnia. What he found there largely confirmed his already resolutely misanthropic worldview, but according to a sensitive if somewhat sensationalizing recent documentary from the BBC, the experience precipitated a nervous breakdown. He was eventually to receive a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Religion came with recovery from acute alcoholism. The BBC film recounts his struggle to fulfill a commission from Glasgow’s Roman Catholic cathedral (Howson is a Protestant and Glasgow is still a city with a sectarian divide) for a mural of the reformation martyr St John Ogilvie. What was to have been a massive crowd scene was eventually delivered as focus on the victim awaiting his noose.

His present show at Flowers Gallery in Chelsea, the New York outpost of his long standing London dealers, shows a series depicting the harrowing of hell and other scenes of massed damnation in a show optimistically titled “Redemption”. Most of Howson’s stock characters are here in trumps, though in a concession to the timelessness of ecclesiastical imagery, the thugs have lost their singlets, if none of their meanness. Males continue to dominate the scene (the women one hopes are in heaven) though there are occasionally buttocks and thighs to continue tempting the damned. Stylistically the artist has graduated to adventurous compressions of space and imaginative liberties with scale, making his paintings feel more old-masterly, although the expressionist treatment of distant architecture, one of his more potent tropes, remains. The problem for Howson is how to depict the saved, not to mention the Savior, when his figural vocabulary remains so resolutely binary. His murky mannerism only admits two types: the siren and the ghoul. His uncouth Christ doesn’t merely conform to Gothic norms that would perfectly make sense of an artist of northern sensibility: no one would expect Howson to deliver an effete, Italianate beauty for the Man of Sorrows. But the Christ in his Outcast(2011) seems only distinguishable from the gargoyles tormenting him thanks to his crown of thorns. Everyone should be happy for the artist that he has found consolation in religion. But blessedness is still banned from Howson’s canvases-spiritual or alas aesthetic. In pictorial terms, the convert remains happiest in Hell.