Sunday, March 31, 2013

Brushing Up an Image

"Divine or profane, his is painting on faith: direct, observational subject matter" imbued with an otherworldly ambiguity through the botched certainty of its execution."

"The way he uses lines, shapes, and color speaks to his putting a lot of value on the object or subject of the painting... "

"He seems to have really nailed purple grapes."

Rembrandt? Renoir? Thomas Hart Benton? Andy Warhol?

Nope. This particular outpouring of artspeak was triggered by the works of a reclusive artist whose paintings burst into public view for the first time recently.

His name? George W. Bush.

Yes, that George Bush, the 43rd President of the United States who left office with somewhat of a tarnished image, as they say in the art world.

Just to refresh our memories, a poll of 238 Presidential scholars found that Bush was ranked 39th out of 43, with poor ratings in handling of the economy, communication, ability to compromise, foreign policy accomplishments and intelligence.

The American public, a forgiving lot, has given him higher approval ratings since he left office, which can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Maybe the publicity surrounding his new-found skills as an artist will enhance his stature even more, although a public display of his work was not his intent.

It seems a hacker wormed his way into a computer owned by the President's sister and revealed his portfolio for all to see. And what we see are everyday objects: cats, dogs, a golf course, a church, a watermelon, a horse, a still life. All done in a style that suggests more Grandma Moses than Claude Monet. (Google George W. Bush Paintings to see the collection.)

There are two works that stand out. One is the President, seen from the rear, naked from the waist up, in a shower with his face reflected in a shaving mirror. The other is a view of his legs and toes in a bathtub.

I guess if we had to see a President bathing we would rather see a fit George Bush than the Jabba-like William Howard Taft.

But because the bathroom series is so out of context with the rest of his work and with the man as we know him, it has sent some in the media into spasms of analysis.

New York writer Dan Amira opines that Bush's self-portraits reveal a former president doing some serious soul-searching in the (almost) twilight of his life. Amira sees 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."

"The bathroom paintings, for example, ooze guilt," writes Travis Diehl in Salon. "They're all about cleansing, la Lady Macbeth; or they're full of remorse for everything from Katrina to waterboarding. "

"Bush's recently revealed attempts at art have had the incredible effect of forcing me to see him as a human being," says Josh Indar at PopMatters. "It's not that the two self-portraits... are technically any good. In fact, they're not even in the realm of good.... But unlike anything by Thomas Kinkade, Bush's amateurish portraits show something I had no idea he was even capable of: Honesty. Introspection. Vulnerability. Doubt... "

I understand that the President of the United States, past or present, is the most visible person on the planet. And that everything he says or does undergoes microscopic scrutiny.

But give Mr. Bush a break. He is not trying to elbow his way into the National Gallery. Like many retired persons, he has a lot of time on his hands and decided to take up painting. And what he produces is intended for friends and family.

While his talent places him somewhere in between the refrigerator door and the Louvre, he's getting in touch with his inner artist. And that's not a bad thing.

Besides, with a little effort, he might be a better painter than president.

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