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Howe, Delmas (b. 1935)  
 
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Howe has explained that he follows Renaissance practice by conceiving nude figures as embodiments of the spiritual and aesthetic ideals of the ancient pantheon and clothed ones as representations of cruel and barbaric aspects of the human spirit. The moral distinction between nude and clothed figures can be noted, for example, in Sebastian and Diocletian: The Persecution of an Aesthete (1989).

During the Renaissance, representations of the nude figure of the martyred St. Sebastian--tied to a column and pierced with arrows--were often infused with homoerotic feeling, as Howe's picture also is. Replacing the usual classical column with the post of an animal enclosure, Howe has shown the nude Sebastian before he has been pierced with arrows, in a pose derived from a famous ancient Greek sculpture of Marsyas. Although Sebastian is not a self portrait, this reference to Marysas associates the saint with Howe, because, in ancient mythology, Marsyas was a painter who was flayed after challenging Apollo's supreme control of the arts.

The central figure in Howe's picture, Emperor Diocletian, is depicted as a muscular ranch boss, dressed in tight jeans, singlet, boots, and Stetson hat. Evoking Renaissance images of Ecce Homo (the presentation of Christ to the people before the Passion), Diocletian points out toward the viewers, as if accusing them of responsibility in Sebastian's fate. The sexual dimensions of the interaction of the two principal figures are conveyed by the large bulge in the crotch of Diocletian's pants and by the gesture of his right hand, which conceals Sebastian's genitals from the gaze of spectators.

Among the other figures, one's attention is particularly attracted to the confidently posed cowboy in elaborate chaps, who, along with his horse, dominates the right half of the composition. Although the meaning of the subsidiary figures remains unclear, the intense erotic energy that they exude is as apparent as the muscles bulging through their clothes.

In many other pictures in the Rodeo Pantheon, the distinctions between the nude gods and the clothed mortals are not as immediately apparent as in Sebastian and Diocletian. For example, in Theseus and Perithous at the Chutes, the mythical figures have the shaggy hair and weathered skin of cowboys, and one of them even drinks a Budweiser. Indeed, both the gods and the men seem infused with the aura of "whiskey, tobacco, leather, and sweat." The gestures and glances, leading from one figure to another, suggest that these intensely sensual beings--gods and mortals, alike--are cruising one another.

Yet, upon closer examination of Theseus and Perithous at the Chutes, one realizes that, not only nudity, but also cheerful expressions, bright eyes, and glistening flesh distinguish the gods from the mortals, who are characterized with somber expressions, eyes generally concealed by sunglasses and hat brims, and bodies covered by heavily shaded garments. In addition, viewers familiar with European art history will recognize that the figures of Theseus (also known as Poseidon, god of the sea) and his companion, the Lapith Perithous, are based on famous classical Greek statues of these subjects.

Attempts to interpret Howe's painting in terms of classical stories, however, raise a number of intriguing questions, but no clear answers. Are the chutes to be identified with the underworld to which Perithous went on Theseus's behalf? Does the cowboy with foreshortened buttocks, extending provocatively into the viewer's space, refer to the story of Persephone, who inspired lust in Theseus?

While most paintings in the Rodeo Pantheon explicitly concern homosexual themes, some depict male-female relations and examine supposedly "conventional" gender roles. The composition of Howe's Picnic on the Grass (1979) is based upon Edouard Manet's famous Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass, 1863), but Howe has reversed the gender hierarchy of the French picture, which shows two clothed men, accompanied by two nude women. In Howe's picture, the nude men are presented as objects of sexual desire, while the clothed women are strong and dominant. At first glance, Howe's Picnic seems to depict two "normative" heterosexual couples. Yet, this impression is undercut by the lustful way that the standing man gazes at the reclining male figure. The homoerotic dimensions of seemingly "straight" men are explored in other paintings of the series, such as Trailer Buddies (1990).

Since 1996, Howe has been working on Stations: A Gay Passion, a series of large paintings that represent (in his words) "moments when we are forced for reasons of grief or triumph or any number of life events to stop and reflect." The title of this series alludes to the Stations of the Cross, fourteen incidents in the Passion of Christ, designated as subjects of special devotion in the Roman Catholic Church since the seventeenth century. Usually, the events commemorated in the Stations of the Cross are depicted as a coherent series of paintings or sculptural tableaux, arranged at intervals along the walls of a church, although they sometimes are grouped together in exterior settings. In accord with this Catholic tradition, Howe believes that the entire Stations: A Gay Passion should be displayed as an ensemble, ideally in a gay church, and he has indicated that he will not sell individual components, even when the series has been completed.

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