PRINT Summer 2014


the paintings of George W. Bush

George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, 2013, oil on board, approx 20 x 18".

We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content
ourselves with a joy-ride in a paint box. And for this
audacity is the only ticket.

—Winston Churchill, “Painting as a Pastime”

AS I WRITE THIS REVIEW, the New York Times is running a feature on Metro Meteor, a retired racing champion who’s reinvented himself as a painter. Assistants tape his brushes so that they don’t splinter when he holds them in his mouth. He paints only one color a day so that the marks don’t smear. Presumably, he paints by feel—after all, a horse’s eyes are on the side of its head.

I don’t bring up Meteor to equate his work with that of a more famous retiree-artist, but to frame a problem: As both the outsider’s emblem of high art and the most populist and seductive of the hobbyist’s pastimes, painting gets weird, especially in the press. The instant George W. Bush decided to do it in earnest, there was no doubt that it would be world news.

And what a news storm it’s been. Reviewers across the globe have held a fascinating mirror to themselves and to a culture tweaking to get a grip on—or its teeth into—the president who defined the 2000s. Many have trashed the pictures as bumbling, or downright grotesque in the harsh light of the political legacy of the “war president.” One bizarre British review contrasted him with Churchill, who at least “had earned his pleasures.” Some saw a creeping plot for folksy redemption. Others revealed deep daftness about the nature of contemporary practice—claiming that Bush’s use of Google for his source images discredits the project, or attacking the use of found photographs in general. A few have defended the pictures, invoking the charm of naive art. But perhaps most of all, comedians rejoiced and the Internet lit up. I, too, texted the portrait of Vladimir Putin to a friend the instant it appeared (the reply: “Is that a Dana Schutz??”). My mounting curiosity as I boarded the plane to Dallas to see “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy,” the grandly titled exhibition at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, was mostly about confronting an Internet sensation in the flesh.

The paintings are both more and less interesting than they initially seem. I went with assumptions about how they were built: The ungainly tectonics of Putin’s hollow cheeks or the pale, bleached bags below Angela Merkel’s eyes, for instance, seemed to result from the beginner’s tic of overworking features first, then hurrying around a bend to the rest of the face. Reproduced, however, these canvases seem more cobbled and wrong than they are. Our experience of even simple renderings can be buoyed by the gratification of seeing someone thinking with his hands, and there is much to look at here, albeit much that is familiar from any first-year class (which, in fact, is something I moonlight teaching). The drawing is awkward; ears pose a special problem, and chins rarely transition cleanly into necks. There are also palpable pleasures: the miracle of King Abdullah’s eyes behind green glass, or a real knack for the squibs and curls that construct the pinch of a lip or the twisted crease beside a nose. Bush’s surfaces are slick, and he moves the paint with carefree gumption, leaving fingerprints or embracing transparent Peytonesque passages such as the one that defines his cheek in a self-portrait.

There is haplessness, but little of the bristling uptightness you often see in the anonymous amateur works unearthed from thrift stores. Unlike W.’s truly odd bath and shower paintings that circulated online, however, these forthright portraits have little of the audacity of naive art, nor the self-aware attitude of those (like Jim Shaw) who mine it. Yet if you saw these from a young artist in Chelsea you might take their roughness as confidence, their intention as hip. Installed in the postmodern-baroque Presidential Center, where a photomural poses Laura Bush on the White House lawn in red satin—holding matching dogs on matching red leashes—they’re awesomely straight-up.

It all comes down to context, in other words. The ex-president defines himself as a painter, but do we define him as an artist? Churchill’s famous essay about his own artistic endeavors (the reading of which lit W.’s fire) makes wonderfully weird slips between military planning and plein air painting, drawing affinities between the two pursuits. But he also describes first wielding the brush as a response to awful inactivity, after he was sidelined from the Admiralty. Others have seen escapism or self-therapy in W.’s new hobby, but there is also Churchill’s notion of pastime, a slippery term that folds self-improvement and self-reflection together with the happy spending of hours. Critics are now doing interesting work on the therapeutic uses of art, which include simple relaxation—for instance, Suzanne Hudson’s insightful take on the many nonpainting viewers of Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting. Perhaps to really understand W.’s work we have to grapple—nervously—with what the medium represents in the American imagination. Folks love it. And that sends some of us tumbling down a critical rabbit hole. So it’s hard for me to characterize his new hobby as sinister, and I would even hazard that the riddle of Bush’s painting is probably not such a stumper, at least not in impulse.

“When I get to heaven,” wrote Churchill, “I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years painting.” Whether for pleasure, absolution, or a final reward, Bush’s penultimate destination seems to be a rec room in Dallas, and his assertions are not mild, nor should they be misunderestimated: “I’ll be painting till I drop. And my last stroke . . . [before] I’m heading into the grave, I wonder what color it will be?”

Matt Saunders is an artist who divides his time between Berlin and Cambridge, MA.