February 8, 2013, 6:26 pm
“W. paints! Who would have thought it? Thanks to a hacker known as Guccifer who wormed into the computer of the 43rd president’s sister, the world has learned that George W. Bush is an amateur – I would say serious amateur – painter. He may be some people’s least favorite president since Hoover, but as an artist he is, well, a heck of a lot better than any number of world leaders whose names spring to mind, foremost Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler.
Images of only three paintings made it to the Internet — where they promptly went viral — before the Secret Service started to investigate. Two are oblique self-portraits, both vertical rectangles that show Mr. Bush bathing. Needless to say, they raise all sorts of interesting questions about what’s on the former president’s mind these days, and what, if any, art he has been looking at.
One shows Mr. Bush in the shower seen from the back (upper torso only), his well-known squint caught in a white rimmed shaving mirror. The other is a Bush-eye view of the former president as he soaks in a bathtub with the water running: in the receding form of the tub only his slightly-bowed legs from the knees down, and his feet are visible, mostly covered by water.
The forms are handled with care, but awkwardly, which is the source of their appeal. Things are recognizable but just: you can detect posh details like the shower’s chrome hinge and glass door. Everything is honestly accounted for, not sharply realistic, certainly not finicky.
Equally interesting is a detail in the photograph itself. The paintings sit on fairly well-used easels. Has the president been painting since 2009 (or earlier) or did he get them second-hand?
The two paintings could be said to depict the introverted self-absorption for which Mr. Bush is known. Perhaps, he is trying to cleanse himself in a more metaphorical way, seeking a kind of redemption from his less fortuitous decisions as president.
At the same time, whatever is going on psychologically, the paintings suggest a man, a painter at ease with his body. He gets some credit for directing his gaze at himself, rather than at the more conventional female nude that is many amateur painters’ first choice. Along with landscapes: the third painting depicts a stone church in Maine, a work in progress that Mr. Bush is shown working on amid weight-lifting equipment in what may be the family work-out room in Kennebunkport, Maine.
For many these works might qualify as outsider art; they give every indication of having been made by a self-taught artist. But so do many paintings shown in the insider art world of today. These works make you wonder if Bush is familiar with Jasper Johns’s “Seasons,” where each of the four paintings is shadowed by a male, seemingly unclothed silhouette, or Pierre Bonnard’s strangely chaste, luminous paintings of his wife reclining in a bathtub. And one can imagine them being not too out of place in a group show that might include the figurative work of Dana Schutz, Karen Kilimnik, Alice Neel, Christoph Ruckhaberle and Sarah McEneaney. It’s possible that we might see more of W’s art. After all, if Larry Gagosian can put the stuff Bob Dylan currently churns out before the public, someone could certainly show these.”