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George W. Bush gives art world conniptions

Posted By Marisa Martin On 05/01/2013 @ 8:36 pm In Diversions,Front Page,Politics,Reviews,U.S. | No Comments

Celebrity model Miss Beazley has been storming the art scene lately, claiming more than her share of the spotlight in major social and media outlets. Her quirky looks set her apart from the crowd with dark, coiled locks sweeping past four stumpy legs.

George W. Bush’s Scottish terrier is charming the world through the former president’s paintings, something D.C.’s betting class would have never laid odds on even a year ago.

Bush didn’t chose to retire in a lethargic swoon to lick his wounds, but continues to challenge himself – this time by learning to paint in oils. Mindlessly doodling a year ago opened the door to all this creativity and attention – and who’d have thought?

With encouragement from friends and family and inspiration from Winston Churchill (via his book “Painting as a Pastime”) GWB decided to give art a chance. Describing to the Dallas Morning News his “great delight in busting stereotypes,” Bush added that he studies privately with an artist and paints almost daily.

What does he have to lose after being leader of the free world, the complexities of post-9/11 and almost universal excoriation in the press? Bush has the kind of thick cowboy hide a fledging artist can find useful when facing critics … or their own insecurities. His art was brought to public without his permission when a hacker sent three years worth of family photos and email to various Internet sites.

Some art writers have become unexpected bedfellows and cheerleaders of this new manifestation of George W Bush.

Jerry Saltz writing for New York Magazine shouts out, “OMG! Pigs Fly. George W. Bush Is a Good Painter!”

After an introductory bash on the man’s character, moral positions and basically all activity since birth, Saltz remarkably continues to rave about Bush’s paintings.

In what can be interpreted as either generous, heartfelt tribute or pure patronization, the critic defends GWB and boldly contradicts other art writers who labeled his debut works “awkward and simple” amongst less printable things.

In a series of somewhat contradictory statements, Saltz gushes, “They show someone doing the best he can with almost no natural gifts – except the desire to do this.”

He seems sincere, whatever the motivation.

Saltz waxes favorably over the fact that Bush paints in his weight room and wears a baseball cap, finding that original and perhaps manly. He compares one of his works to Grant’s “American Gothic,” mentioning “the purity of the lone American farmer. Individuality.”

GWB is quite humble in the face of sudden media civility, mentioning that his “signature is more valuable than the painting.” Incidentally Bush uses his presidential number “43″ alone as his signature.

Unfinished work by George W. Bush

Beyond the universally popular Miss Beazley (who could criticize a Scottish terrier?), Bush’s self portraiture has caused the greatest interest and fevered psychological speculation. Two unfinished paintings that were hacked off family emails feature isolated body parts and partial nudity, always an attention grabber.

Although amateur and still a little rough around the edges, these first attempts at artistic self -discovery are almost universally intriguing to viewers, including myself. Two are bathing scenes, implying possible issues of cleansing, sexuality or religious rites – or maybe it’s just a shower and Bush liked the tile patterns. One work shows only his feet and knees from a bather’s viewpoint in a tub.

Speaking to ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Bush relates his new challenges: “By the way, that’s not that easy to paint: Water hitting water you know, and the perspective.”

The literal transparency of his body here portraying unglamorous and generally hidden feet is a statement in itself. Just five years ago Bush was heavily guarded, commanding armies and making life-or-death decisions affecting the entire earth. It’s inconceivable to me that this man who was blamed by conspiracy theorists and disinformation specialists for causing 9/11 and lying to Congress would create such a humble and open image. I also can’t imagine the current president ever exposing himself in such a vulnerable, fragile or self-effacing manner; he truly has too much to hide.

Another bathing image is even more cryptic and the most intriguing of the lot. In a somewhat unnerving shower scene, Bush reveals his nude torso and a tiny glimpse of his face in a shaving mirror. The composition is Asian, asymmetric and leaves the viewer searching for more information, for what seems to be hidden. The painter doesn’t face us, but engages the world indirectly and obliquely.

Saltz waxes poetic over the grooming: “Both border on the visionary, the absurd, the perverse, the frat boy. Each echoes the same isolation in small space. Rumination without guilt. Thought without dark nights.”

He continues to describe and find meaning in the lighting, hunched posture and slightly averted gaze in the painting. Whether Bush painted these with any intentionality or just thought, “Hey, why don’t I paint myself in the shower?” only God and he knows.

This work triggered a storm swell of responses from critics, ranging from the filthy to the sublime. Here are a few responses to Jerry Saltz’ good review at vulture.com:

  • “I do think they are well done. Surprisingly well done. … His paintings are disturbing. And art is the only place in the universe where that is a good thing whereas George W Bush is concerned. “
  • “LMAO! The game and toys master loves his therapy!”
  • “Here, a conservative ex-leader of the United States of America shows us his naked legs in the bath. It’s a strange and wonderful window into GW’s private life.”

Other than Saltz, most media professionals were unimpressed, but many unnecessarily nasty. Unable to control personal vitriol from skewing opinions, they delivered uniform, reactionary rants and diatribes.

Dan Amira turned an art critique into what should be a patented sermon of clichés for liberals by now: “Bush … staring off into the corner of the shower, as if contemplating past sins that can never be washed away, no matter how much soap you use and how hard you scrub.”

Someone, please send him a pulpit.

Oliver Burkeman displays a sudden, grave concern for correct perspective and realism: “Look at that impossible reflection in the shower mirror … or the perspective on the bathtub, which must be the longest and narrowest in existence.”

Unfinished work by George W. Bush

Burkeman primly feigns horror over “sending naked pictures of yourself to your sister,” so we can safely assume his siblings have never seen him in a swim trunk, which says more about Burkeman than anyone else.

Critics read in a thousand other subplots and vantages: Freudian psychology, family dynamics, religious symbolism, but always politics has the final word. This isn’t avoidable if the artist was first a president, but the degree that it utterly controls the evaluation of worth in art was in this case shocking even to me.

Oh, the trajectories of venom Bush sets off in some circles over mild-mannered images that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if they had been done by anyone else. Not honest criticism of technique or lack of it, but yet another reason to blame GWB for everything from the weather to AIDS. I’m fully expecting someone to make a case he is destroying art – perhaps Alec Baldwin, who really needs another reason to say stupid things now that Hugo Chavez is dead.

Viewers can’t help but temper visual art through a lens of our own bias and experience, and GWB’s won’t be an exception. Bush may keep up the prodigious output of paintings in the future and may well make some interesting stuff. But he will never have the opportunity to work in a neutral vacuum as other artists.

It’s unlikely love or hate via critics will move Bush one way or the other, as he only needs to please himself.

“I love to paint, painting has changed my life in an unbelievably positive way,” he said to Diane Sawyer recently.

GWB carries his legacy through the eyes of viewers who are also judging his presidency while they judge his work. This is going to make for some interesting commentary, as the political divide widens around Miss Beazley and the bathtubs.


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