Howson was a focal member of the group of young artists to emerge from the Glasgow School of Art during the 1980s dubbed the New Glasgow Boys, and one of his generation’s leading figurative painters.
Printmaking has proved to be a highly significant aspect of Howson’s output over the years, often using the compositions formed within the prints as preparations for major paintings. The relative speed of production of techniques such as lithography and the chance effects of the monoprinting process have lent an urgency and vitality to his practice, at times providing the catalyst for the development of new ideas.
Amongst the works mounted in this exhibition are significant preparatory works produced during his role as the official British war artist during the Bosnian War. The 1994 Bosnia Series includes the lithograph Rape which formed the basis for his contraversial Croatian and Muslim painting, purchased by David Bowie following his solo exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in the same year. Despite the well-documented difficulties Howson faced during his witness of the conflict, he has described these prints as among his best, prizing their simple, almost primitive qualities arising from the scarcity of time and resources on the ground.
Howson’s unflinching response to the atrocities of war and the depths of the human psyche, seen clearly within the Bosnian work, was honed from his earlier experience of life on the inner-city streets of the Gallowgate area of Glasgow. Saracen’s Heads, a suite of prints published in 1988 that led to the development of a series of paintings under the same title, were inspired by the characters he observed in a pub near to his studio called The Saracen’s Head, a world as he described it “full of gangsters, boxers and prostitutes”. The portraits in this exhibition, typically titled by their first names such as Al, Mac or Billy, accentuate the grotesque features of the occupants with unforgiving chiarascuro, evoking the eternal half-light underworld of the public bar. Many of the etchings from this series were aquired by museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Tate Gallery, London.
Outsider personalities, often drunk or derelict, have figured prominently in much of Howson’s printmaking, and can be seen within the later portfolio of etchings titled The Underground Series. Produced in 1998 from rapid sketches rendered whilst driving the streets of London, and titled after tube journeys which allowed for closer unobtrusive observations of passing individuals, they portray a continuing fascination with a forgotten class of humanity.
Howson’s despairing depictions of modern life have been identified by Donald Kuspit as ‘‘allegories of vice”, with particular reference to the early Scottish Trilogy, one of two painted triptychs that Kuspit described as “tour de force allegories, grandly summarizing Howson’s interests”.1 Based on The Scottish Bestiary, a series of poems by George Mackay Brown, the series is represented by two prints in the exhibition titled The Fieldmouse and The Stag, depicting Howson’s vision of the perils of alcohol and his sense of a general moral and social decline.
Amid the marginalised subjects on the outer edges of society, Howson has always counterbalanced the wretched with a heroic spirit, seen most prominently in his paintings and prints featuring the figure of a boxer, a breakthrough motif for Howson, which first emerged during his residency at St. Andrews University in 1985. Echoes of the boxer’s giant, distorted muscular frame can be seen in The Noble Dosser, a two-part woodcut portraying a Glasgow street character whose proud stance appears undefeatable, regardless of his circumstances.