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Ringside: The Boxing Paintings and Sculptures of Joseph Sheppard

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 11/13/2002

Ringside: The Boxing Paintings and Sculptures of Joseph Sheppard

Walters Museum through March 9

When asked once why he has devoted so much of his career to painting boxers, Joseph Sheppard responded, "It is a perfect opportunity for a contemporary painter to do a male nude in action." That says a lot about Sheppard's priorities as an artist--much less concerned with the meaning of his subject than with the formal excuses it gives him to paint nudes. And his commemorative show at the Walters is an eloquent testament to this shortsightedness.

Ringside is a collection of Sheppard's gruelingly wrought boxing-themed paintings and sculptures. Sheppard himself sparred for a time at Mack Lewis' famous East Baltimore gym, but that was far less influential a time than the days he spent at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the late 1940s and early '50s, where he was conditioned in the ways of the Old Masters. Ever since, Sheppard has dedicated his career to reproducing the compositions of the late Renaissance stroke for stroke, and applying them to contemporary themes--most notably, prizefighting.

The canvas of the easel and the canvas of the ring are very different matters, but Sheppard has sometimes found some common ground. His "Descent From the Ring," for example, depicts the in-ring death of prizefighter Ernie Knox as a kind of retelling of Christ's removal from the cross. The vanquished hero is muscular yet limp; the manager who cradles him over the ropes is dead in the face; the ref nearby carries the same beatified expression that onlookers always have in Renaissance scenes. Sheppard uses ancient idioms to a different effect in "The Loser," where a bloodied boxer slumps in his chair after a bout. His face is shadowed ominously, the same way Rembrandt shaded his benighted figures, and the folds of his satin robe and the glint of the bottle he holds are rendered with an obsessive attention that Dutch Masters usually reserved for dead pheasants and pewter plates.

But everything else in Ringside is just a close-order drill, mere exercises in anatomy drafting. Sinewy boxers stand defiantly. Young men in Speedos and cutoffs clamber at volleyball. And brawny athletes--lots of them--pose in locker rooms, seen from different angles and in varying states of undress.

For sure, what really holds this show together is not the fistic theme but the thoroughgoing homoeroticism of the work. The musculature is da Vinci-like in its attentive precision, and the utter lack of narrative tells us that these pieces simply aim to explore the male form. Sheppard's "Locker Room," for instance, renders three buff-bare young men in rippling, affectionate lines. The similarly titled "Men's Locker Room"--a spectacle of eight men stripping down, lathering up, and toweling off--is, in its pairing of technique with subject matter, something like a cross between Norman Rockwell and Tom of Finland. For reasons that are their own, curators have declined to chime in on the sheer sensuality of Sheppard's work. And that may be the biggest shame, because, by and large, that's all Ringside has to offer.

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