A hack of our 43rd president’s email account this week netted not state secrets or major scandals—but it did reveal three paintings. We already knew that George W. was an aspiring painter, but until yesterday, none of his work had been publicized (except for a portrait of his recently deceased first dog, Barney). The three grainy shots of his handiwork were released by an anonymous hacker, alongside photos of George H. Bush, Ralph Lauren, and Bill Clinton.
It’s very easy to mock these paintings given their context. And plenty of people already have. Dubya is an easy target for reasons entirely outside of his skill or ambition as an artist. And certainly, when I first saw them, I laughed along with the rest of the Internet. But the more I look at them, the more interesting they become.
The two paintings, which seem as though they were painted in acrylic, show Bush in the shower and bathtub. In one we see his toes sticking out of the murky water as the faucet runs. The former is more interesting: It shows us Bush’s back as he faces the shower, while a reflection of his face stares from a hanging shower mirror. It’s a startling effect, and it immediately made me think of Jan van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini Portrait, which shows a posing couple reflected in a nearby mirror. I’m not arguing that Bush’s work is on a par with the 15th-century Flemish genius, but he is using a mirror in the same way van Eyck did—to point out his presence and reject the gaze of the viewer at the same time. There’s also something of David Hockney here, in the luxury bathroom trappings and the gridded tile background.
Write off the other leaked works as crude acts of stress relief if you will, but these two paintings are fascinatingly blunt. We’re seeing a man who’s thinking about his image, his role in public life, and his legacy. Wonderful New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz explains:
I love these two bather paintings. They are "simple" and "awkward," but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways. They show someone doing the best he can with almost no natural gifts—except the desire to do this. The reclusion and seclusiveness of the pictures evoke the quietude (though not the insight, quality, or genius) of certain Chardin still lifes. These are pictures of someone dissembling without knowing it, unprotected and on display, but split between the promptings of his own inner drives and limited by his abilities. They reflect the pleasures of disinterestedness. A floater. Inert. The images of a man who saw the entire world from the inside but who finds the smallest, most private place in a private home to imagine his universe. Of almost nothingness. Sweet, sublime, oblique oblivion. The visibility of invisibleness.
Read that as deep satire or sincerity, as you see fit. Either way, there’s some truth in it: these paintings put us in Bush’s shoes (had he been wearing any), and force us to look at life from the perspective of a former president who’s currently wildly unpopular. It’s uncomfortable—and isn’t that what good art is all about?
Read Saltz’s full post here.