Now we've seen the art of George W. Bush, but have we really seen it? We asked arts blogger Greg Allen, of greg.org, to give the ex-president's works a close reading.
I can't stop thinking about them, actually. And I've already sent the jpgs off to a Chinese paint mill to be copied.
The amazing thing is not just that they literally show Bush's own perspective—but that Bush is using the process of painting to show his own perspective. It's a level of self-reflection, even self-awareness, that seems completely at odds with his approach to governing.
The choice of subject or situation is notable, too. These shower and bathtub moments are clearly moments when he is alone. (And naked, but whatever, the discomfort of contemplating that image outweighs any metaphorical usefulness.) I've been trying to construct the shower scene, and I think there must be a full mirror on the wall where the viewer is standing, the "fourth wall," if you will. The strong shadow on the bracket of the shower wall indicates early light, probably morning. But the sight lines from the shaving mirror to the body don't quite match up, and it's impossible to say whether that's intentional, unconscious, or his execution. In any case, these are moments where he's alone with himself and his head, that are significant enough to him to reproduce in paint. (Probably from memory, not photos. The perspective would be better if they were painted from photos.)
It's tempting to wonder just what he's thinking about, whether he's contemplating his legacy, his mistakes, his father's illness, whatever, it's really impossible to know. It's just as likely that he's wondering what he's gonna do today: run or bike? There really isn't enough evidence to imagine a deep inner life at all, just an old man alone.
But then there's the painting in the gym, of a church, taken by someone else (Laura?), and his best work, no kidding, his portrait of Barney, which was released last week. When I saw that, it reminded me of the lush, brushy animal paintings of Karen Kilimnik. Taken together, and with the cutout in the smock and easel, he's at least got his family, and with the Bush clan, that's a formidable bunch. Let's see if he ever paints them, though.
His technique is unschooled, not self-consciously trying to emulate any identifiable painter; and his references don't seem to be any paintings at all. Just what he's seeing. They look the way they do precisely because he doesn't have the illusory/representational painting techniques that have been developed over the centuries. It doesn't look like he's studied anatomy, perspective, shading, drawing from live models, color theory, brushes, nothing. He just jumped in there and started painting, how hard could it be?
I mean, his paintings do look a bit like other painters' work. There's the Kilimnik one, and you could say that his bodies do seem like Alice Neel's, but she painted live sitters, and her choices were expressionistic, indicative of some emotional or psychological reality she saw. Except for the whole looking-at-yourself, shower/bathtub solitude thing, I don't see GWB probing any real psychic depths here.
Ultimately what I wonder is why these guys, of all guys, turn to painting? I've wondered this since Paul Bremer's simple rural landscape paintings turned up online. Are there psychological or therapeutic benefits? What drives them? How do they judge their efforts? Theirs are solitary, untrained, yet committed efforts to depict the world in front of them in an accurate representational way. As if they now find themselves in the reality-based community and are trying to make their way in it.