Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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The president or the painter?

George W. Bush picks up painting as his post-presidential past time.

The president or the painter?

Since early February, the news of George W. Bush’s retirement hobby has been a hot topic in the world of politics and art. Yes, Roosevelt shot things, Carter built houses, and Bush­­––well, he likes to paint.

Bush’s post-presidential pastime was exposed to the public after a hacker by the name of Guccifer revealed nearly two dozen of the president's paintings to the public after accessing the Bush family’s personal email accounts.

Our fascination with the George W. Bush paintings doesn’t end at the fact that he has suddenly taken up painting. Oh no, both the subjects and the style of his artwork are worth mentioning as well. What exactly does the president choose to paint? It seems he’s inspired by the things closest to him: landscapes from his childhood, like St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, Texas sunsets, still-lifes of fruit, self-portraits in the bathroom, and of course, portraits of dogs––over 50 of them.

Regardless of your political opinion of the ex-president, his art deserves attention because it provides perspective and insight into a man who once held the most powerful position in the world. Philip Kennicott from the Washington Post reported on the subject, “Not to look is to deny ourselves important material in our assessment not just of Bush, but of the inner life of politicians, especially those who submit to the extraordinary scrutiny and pressure of achieving and holding high office.”

Perhaps Bush’s lack of perspective, his incapability to render three-dimensional space, and his utterly bizarre choice of angles, is just the obscured lens that provoked so many misguided administrative choices during his years in office. At least that’s the conclusion that many blog posters have come to. One of Gawker’s commenters responded to the paintings, writing, “Any doubt in my mind that it was Dick Cheney who really ran the country those eight years has now vanished.” Others have interpreted the works as oddly humanizing, sympathizing with both the subtly emotional puppy pouts and the prideful grin on Bush’s callow face as he stands next to his artwork. Despite his past policies (etc. etc.), one is compelled to tape the works on the White House refrigerator and say, “You’ve done good, Georgie boy.”

As the conversation continues about the Bush paintings, a question surfaces: How are we to perceive these paintings? Do we pick and pry at every line and brushstroke in order to analyze the psyche of the artist behind it, or should we base our understanding of the portraits on artistic merit alone?

Picking and prying has been the approach of some critics and, surprisingly, some psychologists. Art therapist Rachel Brandoff told Flavorwire that the paintings possessed “a representative quality.” The portrait of a Corgi might not be about the dog at all. It may represent Bush, the United States, or foreign policy. New York Magazine writer Dan Amira would agree. Amira, who took a specific interest in Bush’s bathroom paintings, describes the subject as:

“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. His disembodied face appears in the shaving mirror, looking back at Bush through an impossible angle, like a haunting apparition. You can't hide from yourself, the face is saying. You can't hide from God.”

Each interpretation strays away from aesthetic criteria and applies a bias. We forget about form, color, and composition, and focus on how his art can justify decisions made during his presidency. The truth is, Bush’s paintings may not be reflective of his time in office at all. Maybe he just thinks his legs look neat, half submerged in a bathtub, and maybe he just really loves dogs.

To get a general sense George W. Bush’s character, one only has to look at his official presidential portrait in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. The spirit of Bush shines through in his choice of posture, attire, and location. Art critic Morgan Meis writes, “Any other painting, any other style, any other approach would have been ridiculous. But how do you ridicule a Sears portrait that really and truly presents itself as nothing other than a Sears portrait?” Anderson’s portrait of the president is undeniably goofy, yet surprisingly appropriate, especially when one considers Bush’s own body of work.

If that’s the case, if we can strip the paintings of indulgent explanations, then I have a suggestion. Maybe the works of George W. Bush don’t belong on the pages of hypercritical online publications, and instead belong in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s current exhibition: "Great and Mighty Things": Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.

Sunkist Lemons by Eddie Arning

The collection displays over 200 original works by 27 unfamiliar artists. Like Bush’s paintings, outside of the PMA’s walls you might hesitate before calling these works “art,” yet both the collectors and the museum dubbed them worthy of display.

What categorizes outsider art? It’s painting and sculpture created by people without a formal art education. Outsider artists are self-taught, don’t earn a living from their art, and are somewhat removed from the art world. Last time I checked, George W. Bush was exactly that; a novice, motivated by­­­­—well, by what we are still unsure, but still, motivated!

Horse by William Edmonson (left) | Steamship with Propeller and Anchor by David Butler (right)

Salon’s
Travis Diehl
has openly denounced the possibility of grouping George W. Bush in with outsider artists, and has lumped him in with “Sunday artists”–– unschooled artists who create art in their spare time. I propose, however, that Bush is in fact a genuine outsider artist.

Artists featured in the exhibition demonstrate the same rawness, naivety, and disregard for conventional art culture that the ex-president’s work does. I could certainly see Bush’s portrait of his Scottish terrier Barney next to Sister Gertrude Morgan’s “New Jerusalem High Way,” Elijah Pierce’s “Love,” or Bill Traylor’s “Men Drinking, Boys Tormenting, Dogs Barking.” Comparably, Bush’s paintings, are just as original and meaningful as the mentioned works, drawing from personal memories.

My proposition is unlikely to be taken seriously, and justifiably so. After all, towards the end of his 8 years in office, the public image of a simple Texan cowboy morphed into that of a dimwitted villain. Regardless, we should consider viewing his work in terms of outsider art — instead of measuring Bush’s paintings against the rulers of mainstream art and political bias. Sometimes politics and paint don’t mix, sometimes a dog is just a dog, and a sunset is just a sunset. George W. Bush’s career does not necessarily have to be reflected in his art.

We must not neglect the fact that the images of his artwork were leaked and stolen from personal email accounts. Whether the president intended on sharing his portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes with the public is still unknown, but it’s fair to assume that they were intended to be private.

Recently, Bush told an interviewer at the Dallas News, “I’m comfortable with what I did,” he said. “I’m comfortable with who I am.” Sure, he was referencing political criticisms, but will the same attitude apply to his artwork? Now, only time will tell whether, after a staggering political career, George W. Bush will go down in history as a politician or a painter.

Amanda V. Wagner Art Attack
About this blog
Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

Amanda V. Wagner Art Attack
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