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.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Of Popes, Points and Pols

Stories that are making me weary:

The Pope. The resignation of one pope and the selection of another was unquestionably big news. When Pope Benedict gave God three week’s notice, he was the first pontiff to step down in some 600 years. When Pope Francis ascended to the papacy, he was the first non-European to lead the Catholic church in 1300 years.

In between these two events, we were subjected to the silly season. A hundred thousand people gathered in St.Peter’s Square to watch the spectacle and I’m thinking 90,000 of them must have been reporters.

In a desperate search for news, they came up with such gems as “Pope Benedict XVI Will Have to Give Up Red Shoes, Shoulder Cape” and “Anxiety Befalls Vatican as Cardinals Gather.” ABC’s Diane Sawyer quizzed Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa on what he would pack before moving to the electoral dormitory.

When the smoke cleared, not much had changed. A gentleman of some considerable years was chosen, a man who like his predecessors is devoted to keeping the church squarely entrenched in the 16th century, give or take a millennium or two.

For one week, it was a great show, full of solemnity and ritual. Now it’s business as usual in the Vatican. Nothing to see here, move on.

The Lakers. To put it delicately, the team stinks. That hasn’t stopped the local press corps from churning out stories by the basketful each and every day. The Los Angeles Times sometimes will have three Laker stories on days the team doesn’t even play.

Every utterance from Kobe Bryant is treated as scripture. Every move by Dwight Howard is dissected, analyzed, then studied some more. Injuries are reported in detail that would make the Mayo Clinic proud.

One of their players is named World Peace. Which, like the team's chances, is a long shot.

Worse, reading about the Lakers is like being back in junior high school: who likes who, who doesn’t like who, the spats, the gossip.

This team isn’t going anywhere this year. And when they fail, there will be months of navel gazing. Enough already. Vin Scully and the Dodgers can’t get here soon enough.

The Republican Party. The GOP has been indulged in self-flagellation since Nov.7, 2012, the day they woke up and discovered they had been blitzed in an election they thought they had in the bag.

Since then, one Republican leader after another has decried the fact that their party tried to appeal to an electorate that no longer exists in any significant numbers, and in the process had managed to alienate blacks, Latinos, gays, women, young voters not to mention dogs and cats, birds and bees.

Now, the party has released a report, or an autopsy if you will, that essentially says the same thing. One of the authors of the study said that focus groups described the party as “narrow-minded,” “out of touch” and “stuffy old men.”

We get the point.

If the GOP doesn’t want to go the way of the Whig party, it had better stop continually talking about its failures and start addressing its future. Congressional elections are a little more than a year away.

The NFL in L.A. Welcome to another chapter of “As the Football Turns.”

Tim Leiweke has put his heart and sole into bringing NFL football to Los Angeles on behalf of his boss, Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz. His reward? Anschutz throws him under the bus and says he’ll personally take charge of getting a deal done.

The NFL’s reaction? Commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement that fairly oozes with tepid interest, says of Anschutz, “ He seems that he would like to get a stadium built in Los Angeles that would be suitable for an NFL team. We look forward to working on that.”

After 18 years of hollow promises and dead deals, the next thing I want to hear on this subject it that an agreement has been reached. If I live that long.

Lindsey Lohan: Enough said.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Audacious Behavior

Attention, students. Today we will explore the words "audacity" and its cousin "audacious."

The first thing you need to know about these words is that they are loaded with nuances.

Audacity is heroic and inspiring. The SEAL mission that terminated Osama bin Laden was audacious. So was George Washington crossing the Delaware on a dark winter night in 1776 to attack the British in Trenton. The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk were audacious. So was Neil Armstrong when he set foot on the moon.

Audacity can also be evil. 9/11 was audacious. So was Pearl Harbor. So was the systematic roundup and annihilation of Jews by the Nazis.

Audacity can be artistic. Picasso was audacious. So was Beethoven. And Elvis Presley. Stanley Kubrick defined the word as a film director. Marlin Brando and Katherine Hepburn did it as actors.

Audacity can also be absurd. In the words of author Jim Butcher, "There's a fine line between audacity and idiocy."

One person who crossed that line is Mark Sanford. You remember Mark. He was the former South Carolina governor who threw away his political career and his family to chase after some Argentinian hottie he called "his soul mate."

It was 2009 when Sanford disappeared from the Governor's Mansion for six days, his whereabouts unknown to his staff and family. It turns out he was in Argentina with a lady love to whom he was not wed.

He told an aide that he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail," which instantly became a sarcastic euphemism for extra-marital hanky-panky.

His wife and four sons moved out of the mansion and she shortly thereafter filed for divorce. In the midst of this, he refused to resign his gubernatorial position despite being threatened with impeachment.

Fast forward to now: Sanford, apparently feeling the tug of political life, has decided to run for Congress. He certainly has name recognition. But what he really needs is a top-rate campaign manager to smooth his return to the national stage.

So who does he turn to? His ex-wife, according to a story in New York magazine. They haven't exactly been exchanging Valentine's Day cards but she has a reputation as a shrewd political strategist who helped run his gubernatorial campaign. So Sanford, mustering all his charm, tells her, "I could pay you this time." What a silver-tongued devil.

She declined. And you can bet the word "audacious" crossed her mind.

Audacity gone wrong isn't always fatal. Consider the case of Roy Brown, who died recently at 96.

Brown was a veteran automotive designer in the 1950s who was charged with overseeing a new car the Ford people wanted to produce. His marching orders were to produce a car that could be recognized from a block away.

He did just that. In spades. Brown brought forth the Edsel, a car that was long on audacity and short on appeal. Indeed, it became one of the greatest flops in automotive history.

His chrome encrusted behemoth was, in the words of automotive industry analyst Maryann Keller "almost grotesque." She cited among the vehicle's flaws its "hundreds of pounds of unnecessary weight in bumpers."

Undeterred, Brown went on to help design the Thunderbird and a show car that inspired the Batmobile.

He expressed pride in his doomed creation and drove an Edsel until he died. When people would ask to buy it, he would reply, "Where the hell were you in 1958?"

Last but not least, audacity can be expensive.

The principality of Monaco perched on the French Riviera has become the most expensive city in the world when it comes to real estate, according to Knight Frank, a London-based real-estate firm. It reported that the average price of real-estate in Monaco was between $5,350 and $5,920 per square foot.

To put that in perspective, that means spending $1 million will get you a 200 square-foot closet - presumably without a water view.

By comparison, New York, which is nobody's bargain, prices in at $2,161 a square foot.

The question is: which is more audacious, the asking price or the people willing to pay it?

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Kicking the Can Off the Fiscal Cliff

Let's play a game of word association. I'll say a word and you quickly give me a one-word answer.

Me: Congress.

You: Gridlock. Partisanship. Brinkmanship. Bickering. Incompetence. Frustration. Anger. Cockroach.

Cockroach? Ah, now I remember. A poll by the firm Public Policy Polling taken at the beginning of the year found that Congress was more unpopular than cockroaches.

So good answers, all.

But if it's not bad enough that Congress has revealed itself to be nothing more than a bunch of political hooligans, its members are now cluttering up our language with a bunch of cliches that are as tiresome as those who utter them.

To underscore that point, consider the good folks at Lake Superior State University in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who since 1976 have been compiling an annual list of words that should be banished. Their picks are almost always spot on.

Not surprisingly, this year's edition borrows heavily from the Beltway.

Leading the list is "fiscal cliff" a term that described the financial havoc that threatened to plunge us into the abyss because Congressional combatants couldn't make peace. After months of angst and finger-pointing, it was resolved when a couple of old hands, Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, decided to speak to one another. And how did they reach an accord? Well, they decided to:

"Kick the can down the road." This candidate for banishment simply means to procrastinate, a favorite pastime in Washington. Wait, that's too simple. It's more like procrastinating in the hopes someone else will deal with the problem long after you've gone. It's an old favorite practiced, as one wag posted, "by Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, Tories, Whigs, Socialists, Communists, Fashionistas " Maybe we can just kick the can off the fiscal cliff.

"Job creators": Uttered several thousand times by both candidates during the 2012 presidential election, it implied that both men had supernatural powers or a secret plan to end joblessness in this country now and forever. It was mostly misused by Mitt Romney who actually made a great deal of money by laying people off.

Double Down: A blackjack term that seems to have found a place in everyday language, especially in politics where is often used in place of "redoubling our efforts." But it carries with it the implication of risky behavior, since in cards it means doubling your bet against long odds. If that's not bad enough, KFC offers something called a Double Down sandwich, a pile of bacon and Monterey Jack cheese that uses two slabs of deep-fried chicken breasts in place of a bun. Any way you slice it, this expression is dangerous.

Not on the Lake Superior State list but a personal gripe: When did we start to speak in acronyms when referring to persons and institutions? Now we have POTUS (president of the United States), FLOTUS (first lady of the United States), SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) and even SOTUA (State of the Union Address). It sounds like a group of Greek islands.

I suspect it's a carry over from the military which will always use an acronym in place of a word if possible. Example: LPC for Leather Personnel Carrier. That's "shoes" to you.

In the non-political category, the Lake Superior list contains such favorites as "spoiler alert," "an obnoxious way to show one has trivial information and is about to use it, no matter what."

And "boneless wings," "Can we just call them chicken (pieces)?"

And "YOLO," Twitter speak for You Only Live Once which is a passport for young people to act like idiots.

I would add to that list "baby bump," a term describing recently impregnated ladies that apparently originated in England. Some thought it was so cutesy it could result in an uptick of teenage pregnancies.

Those Brits, always trying to mess with our language.