It's difficult to discuss President George W. Bush's art show without first talking about the work's context. To look at his portrait of Tony Blair and not consider the relationship between the two world leaders would be impossible. Just a few years after his presidency, Bush persists as a part of the cultural fabric in America; affection or hatred remains fresh. In a strange intersection of art, politics and history, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum hosts an exhibition of the former president's latest portraiture through June 3.
This is not a serious art show. It's not about specific artistic choices. It's not groundbreaking subject matter. It's a portraiture series, in which a budding artist captures the faces of world leaders. But if Luc Tuymans had painted the same pieces we would praise them. We might describe the gray shadows on Vladmir Putin's face, or his particularly tight jaw, as statements about a complex, manipulative world leader. The cartoonish oafishness might represent a certain naivety in America's approach to diplomacy with Russia.
Unfortunately, Bush's oil paintings are more simple than that and the historical curation attempts to remove any doubt about the president's intention. He's not dealing with his presidency on the canvas or experimenting with color, he's simply painting portraits of professional friendships. In line for the exhibit, a video loops of an interview with George about his new hobby. He says things about his subjects like this about Tony Blair: "I liked him when I was president and I liked him when I was painting him." Not exactly a huge artistic statement.
The video ends with Bush saying, "I fully understand the signature is worth more than the painting." This gave several of my fellow tourists reason to ponder if that is the case, why he hadn't signed any of his work? He signed the back of the canvases rather than the front, perhaps as a gesture of humility. I overheard one visitor speculate that his art teacher outlined them and the president simply colored in the lines. Certainly, the paintings are more color by numbers than mastery of craft. Then again, the faces are recognizable and echo the style of early American folk art. The exhibit unfolds in chronological order of the President's relationships, with his self-portrait and that of his father at the front. Each face is clearly recognizable, no labels necessary. For someone just two years into painting, this could be seen as a marked achievement.
And on Sunday morning of opening weekend, hundreds of visitors poured into the exhibition. Even though the brushstrokes are sloppy and the paintings are labeled with the library's brand of propaganda, the voyeuristic nature of the exhibit makes sense. We're peering into the former President's life. What has he been up to since invading Iraq? He's been sitting in his art studio at his ranch, painting the eight years he spent in the White House. No diplomat left behind.
But this exhibit is not a punch line to a liberal's joke. It's a chance to peek into the life of a living former president, to see the hobby of a man who altered our nation. We're not far enough removed from Bush's presidency to have perspective on the impact he will leave on the country. We're still swimming amongst the ripples he left behind. For him to have an exhibition seems like an error in judgement, because In art, it's always fair to point to a bigger question, or to look for meaning. It's difficult not to question Bush's overuse of white to represent light dancing across an oily forehead, or the rusty shading around the suit of his self-portrait and the way he seems to disappear near the edge of the canvas.
Maybe if we discovered these paintings in 50 years, with time to look back, scholars could interpret and re-interpret in an attempt to dissect what he was trying to say, it would be easy to see artistic merit. Instead we're looking at them now, being told in clear terms that these are just the work of an amateur and that the only reason we're looking at them is because he served as president of the United States. This is not an art show, it's a strange amalgam of politics and human interest, put on display for the public, at the price tag of $16.