Graceful Boxers

"Myth" sells sports, or maybe religion

There is really nothing better than a painting of a boxer who looks like a nun. No, nothing better. Nothing better at all.

You can imbue anything with sanctity, of course. You can paint holy mystery into a flower or a child (though that generally ends up really goopy-looking and is not recommended, ever) or a Double-Double burger. Especially a Double-Double burger. All you have to do is light the object from above (and a little from behind as well), as though rays of God's love are shining forth from on high to hold it in their heavenly caress, and bam!—as craaazy chef Emeril Lagasse is so fond of shouting —there you are.

I don't mean to make light of this phenomenon. I'm a big fan of Raphael and Leonardo, though generally they reserved their cosmic rays for the Mother of God in various locales—on rocks, in fields, at night, plopped into the Flemish countryside, whatever. And I'm a big fan of God's mysteries, whether it's the Madonna being bodily assumed into heaven or just average people or things that have been touched by something greater than themselves. Like cute, cuddly wittle kittens, which are surely one of God's greatest endeavors. And banana slugs, too, at least in the capable mitts of neo-Victorian painter Thomas Woodruff. But he is not the point of this story. The point is: Why bind ourselves to the Earth with flat, lightless paint when we can make things hover and glow, no matter how seemingly mundane the subject? You know, like a Norman Rockwell painting, sort of. Sanctified boxers.

Steve Huston paints boxers. They are fierce and big, and if you met them in a dark alley, you would avert your eyes and mumble, after wetting yourself. Sports painting is usually the vilest and most pandersome of genres. Action! Manliness! Homoeroticism disguised as rough-and-tumble team play! You can see the canvases vying for your rec-room decorating dollars in galleries of little standing and lots of cash sales. They're like sports movies: rah, rah, big, rambling clichéd speeches and maybe a grizzled coach leaking a tear or two before some brightly colored jerseys smash into one another under appropriately dramatic gray skies, rah, rah. The odious Rudy and the butt-numbing Any Given Sunday hobble to mind.

But boxers are another fish entirely. They go back on canvas to at least the Great Depression, when Social Realists painted them both as allegories of the fight against the capitalist menace and as bread-and-circus sops to the workingman. When they are ugly, their ugliness is a compelling record of every battle they've fought. When they're handsome, they're Oscar De La Hoya, who buttresses his beauty with a chick-magnet humility—fake or real, I've no idea. When they're still, they're the stillest —stiller even than X's Billy Zoom, who is one of the stillest men I've ever seen. Their stillness is so complete, so immaculate, so focused that they seem otherworldly, communicating only with extrasensory beams from their extraterrestrial eyes. And when they're in action, they are the most graceful of athletes, except when they're flying onto the mat ass-over-head with one punch from Butterbean. Poor things.

Huston sees all these things, and his canvases in "Myth" at Diane Nelson Fine Art in Laguna Beach prove it. It's a fetishistic look at masculinity worthy of the Greeks. It is beautiful, its ugly palette of gloomy browns (seemingly borrowed from the doomsday bullet trains of Ray Turner) only adding to the mystery of these earthbound and often slightly retarded men.

Into the Arena is the most mystic of the canvases: a figure standing before a Gothic arched door, a black boxer's robe draped over the head like a nun's veil. It takes a moment to realize it's a man under there, with God's light raining down upon him. I know it sounds silly, but the effect truly is one of grace. As nuns are married to Christ, this man is married to himself and the holy temple of his body—and how much pain that holy temple can inflict on a lesser vessel. Robed is huge, life-sized and completely inscrutable. Its format is pure Stephen Douglas—a noted figurative painter who teaches at the Art Institute of Southern California in Laguna Canyon—as it glares down at you from high on the gallery wall. The boxer's orange robes are shamanistic, flowing around him while gloves like lobster claws peep from the sleeves. But as he sneers, you can't tell whether he's driven by cold rage, contempt or boredom. His eyes, while powerful, are unknowable. He is not a humble man.

I know nothing about Huston's motivations for painting. He could very well be a hack who figgers manly stuff will sell—or, even more ridiculously, he could be truly in love with his subject matter. It doesn't matter a whit. What matters is the cold, cold eyes, and how long they stay inside you.

"Myth" at Diane Nelson Fine Art, 435 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-2440. Through March 26.
 
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