Former president George W. Bush’s two most famous artworks are self-portraits. In one, he stands naked, reflected in the bathroom mirror from the waist up with his back to us, and in another, stretched out in the tub, from his own point of view. The latter is the creepier of the two. It's as if our eyes and head correspond exactly to his—are we looking at our own knees raised in the milky bathtub, our feet and toes peeking out in the distance? Even for homespun realism, it's more than a little perverse. These are intimate moments that we would never be privy to—or particularly want to see—yet here they are, captured and put out into the world as paintings, made by the president himself.
Bush isn’t the first former head of state to take up the brush. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill are two of the most well known, but the practice of academic easel painting also figures improbably in the bigger picture of a frustrated art student in Germany who would go on to terrorize all of Europe. How vastly different the brutal march of history might have been had Adolf Hitler found some measure of encouragement for his efforts, however pedestrian. But as we can see from his canvases and sketches, he was an amateur, with a rudimentary grasp of perspective, a reminder that both art and war, in terms of its winners and losers, are somehow equally a matter of failure.
Photo by Frank Scherschel//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
In his decision to become an artist, George W. Bush cited Churchill's book, Painting as a Pastime, widely published in 1965. In his essay, the former British prime minister puts forth the notion that those who take up art later in life shouldn't be concerned with the study of technique, stating, "We must not be too ambitious. 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." When considering the painted achievements of W., it's clear just how closely to heart he takes these words, how they must convey a freeing sense of permission with which he readily identifies. After all, some people in this life are used to getting "a pass," never having to work too hard for anything, rarely having to answer for mistakes, having others clean up after them. A spill of cadmium red can be removed with turpentine and a rag, but a pool of blood?
Churchill, despite the fairly tame appearance of his paintings, likened the act of making them to battle. Yet his forays into art were not solely those of a onetime statesman. His earliest canvases predate his essay on painting by a full 50 years, while it's been noted that he exhibited work under pseudonyms both before and after the war, trading on his name most assuredly. His onetime brother-in-arms, Eisenhower, picked up the brush after leaving the White House, and for each, painting must have offered a sense of meditative relaxation following many turbulent years on the world's stage.
Dwight D Eisenhower at his easel. Photo from Dan Ghraham's Rock My Religion, MIT Press, 1993
The artist Dan Graham, in his seminal 1968 essay "Eisenhower and the Hippies," remarks on how the paintings of the former president register an indifference to his subjects. Such a statement might just as well be that of an anti-monarchist indicting the king, though it seems impossible to occupy a bejeweled throne and not be indifferent to one's subjects. The throne room is very far from the studio, with the heady odor of oil and solvent fumes, a kind of ether whose intoxicating effects serve to remind us that creation and destruction are often intimately entwined. To paint after walking the hallways of power is, in contrast, to take up a rather mundane task, and yet with a painting one can decide on something and see it through from start to finish, with little or no interference. The same cannot be said of their prior lives in public service. For these once powerful men, painting is a second act that points inevitably to the limits of those higher realms. Simply stated, to be president of the United States is to be stuck in one of the most frustrating, dead-end jobs in the country.
All installation photos by Jason Metcalf
No one could have predicted that W. would turn to painting after his White House departure. But this is precisely what he has done, and it is now officially established with an exhibition of his portraits, titled The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy, at his Presidential Center in Dallas. In an interview posted on the History Channel, and annoyingly incorporated into the show, Bush reveals that he took up painting because he wondered "how to kind of live life to the fullest." In the video, he assures us that his new vocation is a total commitment, going so far as to claim, "I expect I’ll be painting till I drop. And my last stroke, and I’m heading into the grave, I wonder what color it will be." As for second acts, his wife, Laura, remarks, "I think what George is teaching everybody is that it's never too late to start something new." To which W. happily adds, with a tail practically wagging, "You can teach an old dog new tricks!"
The exhibition includes numerous gifts from world leaders that were given to W. in his eight years in office, and in one there is a telling clue as to what may be the real source of his inspiration to paint: A glittering jewel of a book, displayed in a vitrine beneath a blandly scary portrait of Validmir Putin, identified thusly:
Book of original watercolor portraits of all the American Presidents through George W. Bush, given to President Bush during President Vladimir Putin's visit to Camp David on Sept. 26, 2003. The red velvet bound book is studded with precious gems including rubies, amethysts and sapphires.
It's certainly possible that Putin's gift was more influential on W.’s painting career than Churchill’s book, but why give credit to a tyrant when you can laud one of the heroes who so boldly helped save Europe in the war?
There are, of course, more than a few critics and casual observers who have said that Bush’s paintings are just plain bad. But is there really such a thing? After all, isn't there something bad about every painting? In the late 60s the artist Neil Jenney, until then an eccentric conceptualist with an obvious love of baseball and neon, began a series of representational works on canvas that came to be known as his "Bad Paintings." The term embraced a whole host of figurative or "new image" artists at the time, though Jenney's paintings were and remain the best. He is a great—and greatly underrated—artist, with a style that is smart, loose and simultaneously precise, and perfectly deadpan. His most "political" image shows an American Air Force jet and a Russian Mig flying side-by-side, with the painted caption/title, Them and Us (1969). It's worth noting that in his most recent exhibition, in March of last year, at Gagosian Gallery in New York, he hung a banner with a by now familiar picture of a young soldier that read: "Thank You Bradley Manning, America Needs the Truth."
The show of W.'s paintings in Dallas contains no such political provocation—beyond the fact of its simply being there. It most certainly doesn't include those bathroom paintings, which the former President says he made only to tease his art instructor. (Neither does it include any of his paintings of cats and dogs, which are actually some of his best efforts, as good as any brushy masterworks by the much-admired Karen Kilimnik.) Is it possible that the bathroom paintings were intentionally used to rouse interest in his new hobby, especially for the show at his Presidential Center?
Across town, and opening at the same time, coincidentally or not, is the first retrospective for the painter Richard Phillips, mounted at Dallas Contemporary. Upon entering, one is confronted with his 2001 study for a portrait of George W. Bush. This has been hung next to a painting of a porn star, her legs spread and a huge stream of liquid spraying from her crotch, aimed precisely at the smirk on the president's face. Meant to push buttons of a less corporeal nature, the pairing is perhaps meant to provoke the hometown audience.
In light of W.'s bathroom paintings, Phillips has something in common with their creator, what we might term the persistent schoolboy's need to shock, an art of arrested adolescence. And upon close inspection, Phillips isn't a much better painter than W. In another of his porn star paintings, an indistinct "mitt" is so crudely rendered that Phillips, or whoever painted it, seems to possess no sense of touch whatsoever. But wouldn't you expect a better handjob from an artist who has such a lofty estimation of his own talents? Phillips, in terms of his "values" and the limply predictable choice of subjects, is obviously as conservative as W., in the end just another "neocon" artist in a moment when they are increasing exponentially.
Across the street from the Phillips exhibition, at the San Luis Night Club, a mural is painted on the brick wall adjacent to the parking lot, with a woman seductively posed on a pool table, in high black boots and a bikini, a painting signed by the appropriately named "Woody." It's a far more honest enticement than any of the billboards in Phillips's tawdry cathouse.
Given the venue for W.'s show, it seems appropriate that its focus is on portraits of former and current world leaders he met while in office, such as Tony Blair, Hamid Karzai, and Angela Merkel. There are those exalted, like His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, as well as those who define the depths of sleaze, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. They are all painted with the same modest talent for mediocrity, and in this there will be, for his detractors at least, a certain parallel to his stretch in the White House. Of course, you don't have to attend art school to become an artist. And so to be a president or a painter might overlap after all: No prior experience required.
Only a few of W.'s portraits stand out among the rest: Václav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic, who is weirdly animated, ruddy, and toothsome (and might have been painted by John Currin earlier in his career). Unlike W's other subjects, Havel is afforded more than a bland background. He has, fittingly enough for a playwright, poet, and dissident, a shelf full of books. The background for Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, actually has gestural brushwork, indicating some sign of painted life where flat monochrome tends to prevail. But there's not much point in discussing these pictures as paintings, since they are more purely a phenomenon, not unlike the recent canvases by Bob Dylan—which some believe were produced by none other than Richard Prince and turned out to be copies from pre-existing and copyrighted images. Celebrity attribution, even of a dubious nature, adds to a work's price. At the very least, W. actually made his own paintings, and he doesn't have an inflated sense of their value. As he himself admits, "I fully understand that the signature is worth more than the painting."
This is the kind of admission that you would never hear, at least not publicly, from a painter on the contemporary art scene. Any number of artists know full well that wealthy people drop a pile of change on their work for the signature alone—not for its beauty, rarity, quality, or importance. You could say that paintings of dubious aesthetic value are snapped up in a market that is vastly over-heated, and in direct proportion to how underwhelming its product has become. There are a lot of well-paid amateurs out there, whether over-the-hill or recently minted stars—shooting stars, as time will surely tell.
At least W. is offering an image. These days some of the most successful artists do little more than dip raw canvases in bleach, have studio assistants trample them with muddy sneakers, let their dogs pee on them, and then send them off to the gallery with five- and six-figure price tags. What to call it? “The Emperor's New Paintings”? As the brilliant Alissa Bennett recently remarked, we are all exhausted by "art that works so hard to show you how little it cares." When it comes to making the grade, there may be a borderline C given out at Yale, but there's no such thing in the market. Seemingly brainy underachievement is what tends to be praised. Is this our new avant-garde? Advancing absolutely nothing at all, merely weariness, avant-bored comes closer to its numbing effect.
In his own likable way, W. can be convincing about his sincerity for painting, and yet sincerity has nothing to do with whether or not a canvas should be considered a work of Art with a capital A. Today, for better or worse, and all too often it's the latter, everything claimed as art must be accepted as such. Even a scrap of canvas upon which an adorable pup relieved himself in the studio. In this skewed paradigm, W.'s portraits of dogs are infinitely superior. They make no greater claim than to be exactly what they are: a painting of a pet, competently rendered, and hung on the den wall or offered as a present to a friend. These paintings aren't lying to us, pulling the wool over our sheepish heads. While you may not care for the man who made the painting—the same man who looked us in the face and insisted there were WMDs in Iraq—he has little in common with the "respectable" artists we're meant to take seriously, and who turns out to be a complete fraud. Or does he?
Not long after The Art of Leadership opened in Dallas, the truth emerged about the sources of Bush's portraits—Google image searches, often the top hit for one of his subjects, or the official portrait on a Wiki page. Busted, it would seem. Stop the presses. Time to rewrite the day's front page. Or not. First, why on Earth is anyone in any way surprised that someone of W.'s stature would take a shortcut here or there? Hasn't he been taking them all his life? And what's the big deal? If anything, his sourcing of images online only makes him that much more of a relevant contemporary artist, more “with it,” our newest and most famous appropriationist. Isn't every painter today a copyist of one sort or another? Anyone who has ever been president in this country must be well-versed in how to appropriate or expropriate, to take as one's own. It must be second nature. After all, the apple isn't stolen very far from the tree. And the fine art of rapacity has always been conveyed in the most exclusive private schools. No future president left behind.
Anyway, what do people expect of Bush as an artist? To have painted these portraits from life? Or from memory? Now that would have been hilarious. He still could. Really, Mr. President, we dare you—paint from memory. And a new set of subjects as well, even at the risk of creating a rogue's gallery. Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney, and last but not least, the great known unknown, Donald Rumsfeld. Condoleeza Rice has already been painted memorably by the esteemed Luc Tuymans, but go ahead, "give it a whirl" as you yourself would say, see if you can do better. Put your mind to it, and with a more fluid flick of the wrist, maybe you will.