Sunday, February 10, 2013

File Under: Things I Never Dreamt I'd Write About

If you've been paying attention to our nation's art scribes you already know that the hacked paintings of George W. Bush have sparked a flurry of critical interpretation. That W. has taken up painting isn't surprising; that's been known for quite some time. What is surprising - at least in regards to the two most talked about paintings - is the reflective, personal and oddly contemplative nature of the Bush muse. These aren't the rustic landscapes of your typical retired head of state (see Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower). No, these are something very different. Intimate is maybe the right word, though I think embarrassingly intimate gets us a closer the heart of the matter. In these paintings we are privy to a naked George W. Bush; the former President of the United States with both flesh and artistic talent laid bare. It's safe to assume most of us never expected to witness either, let alone both.

painting - George W. Bush

Interestingly many critics have weighed in on what the paintings might mean. Some speculate that the appearance of water in both works points to a cleansing process for our former President, or perhaps lingering concerns over advanced interrogation techniques (see also torture and water boarding). Others note the mirror and reflective surfaces and suggest an association with surveillance or the unyielding public eye. Some simply marvel at the possibility that this notoriously unreflective man may indeed possess an interior life.

Me? I won't even hazard a guess. That's because to this day George W. Bush remains a mystery to me; his brain a black box that clearly works nothing like mine. He was, after all, the President who for eight years chose exactly the opposite words, responses, and actions I would have. What hope could I possibly have of deciphering the meaning of these most personal of paintings? None really, which leaves me little to comment on beyond the formal elements.

painting - George W. Bush

Stylistically, the first painter I thought of was one of my favorites, Pierre Bonnard. Over the course of his career Bonnard produced countless bath and toilette paintings featuring his partner Marthe Boursin. He also worked in a similarly naive style. I expect in Bonnard's case that was an intentional choice. For Bush it's likely a matter of necessity or skill. With both painters, tubs, water, mirrors, patterns and tiles (as well as the human form) are rendered with a kind of sketchy and distorted charm.

Nu devant la glace ou Baigneuse  by Pierre Bonnard (1915)

From a more conceptual standpoint, it's notable that these are self-portraits executed in rather unconventional ways. The bathtub painting in particular is done in a manner that might best be described as "21st Century Digital Style". It' very much first-person and very much in line with the way we've become accustomed to documenting our lives from our own unique perspectives.

Nu Dans le bain by Pierre Bonnard (1936-1938)

This vantage point is rare in traditional self-portraiture but very common in our age of digital cameras, miniature camcorders, helmet cams, and first-person video games. From that perspective Bush is treading some interesting territory. He's created works that can reasonably be called self-portraits, but self-portraits that show not so much the face of the artist, but rather the experience of the artist. As to how the artist might interpret that experience, well that remains anyone's guess.