Art Review: Why Does George W. Bush Like to Paint?

My first visit to the George W. Bush Presidential Center began with an unofficial tour of the facility’s security center. We were led through a back door, screened by an airport-style scanner, and then detained in a drab interior loading dock. Two large glass windows offered views into a room outfitted with a half dozen computer monitors. A member of the security detail sipped ice tea from a large masonry jar and watched split-screen shots of closed circuit cameras. He zoomed in on pedestrians loitering on the sidewalks outside the center and cars that drove into the back parking lot. As workers arrived at the museum and scanned their badges, headshots popped-up on the screen with personal information displayed. At one point, he noticed a man walking up the narrow corridor that led to a back door. Four other security guards gathered around. Zoom in. Zoom out. Wait. Watch. Exhale. Not surprisingly, it was a false alarm.

The scene was a kind of in-the-flesh Jill Magid installation, performative paranoia, an illustration of the co-dependent power relationship between the observed and the observer, only couched within this building, dedicated to the legacy of the 43rd president. It was a fitting introduction to the art of a man whose eight years in office ushered in the new era of global hyper security. The scrum of journalists who had come to Presidential Center that morning were then led through bowels of the archive wing of the facility and up into the center’s galleries to the latest exhibition: The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy, an exhibition of recent paintings by President George W. Bush.

Since his email was hacked and paintings of the former president lounging in a bathtub or glancing at himself in the shower leaked onto Gawker, Bush’s art has been the subject of much curiosity, ridicule, and even some tepid praise. At first he seemed to shirk from the sudden attention given to his private hobby, but now he has embraced it. The new exhibition features portraits Bush has painted of world leaders, paired with items received during state visits and placards with quotes and snippets of historic facts filtered through the lens of the Bush White House. There’s also a video in which George and Laura Bush discuss the ex-president’s new hobby.

On the one hand, the attention that Bush’s art has received is ridiculous. Many commentators are tempted by the opportunity the paintings offer to glean some new insight into the man. And yet, if Bill Clinton had played sax with a Springsteen cover band after his years in office, would we try to read his music as a window into his frustrated, Lewinski libido? Can the early, uneasy products of Bush’s retirement hobby really be expected to say anything more about the president other than the fact that he is a man who has discovered that he likes to paint? It is precisely because Bush’s paintings are the work of an amateur hand, and their uneasy, uneven style smacks of the naivety of outsider art, that it is tempting to read into them something of the psychology and sensibilities of the former president.

But perhaps the fact that Bush paints says more about the man than what he paints. In the video accompanying the exhibition, Bush talks about how he was inspired to pick up painting after reading Winston Churchill’s essay, “Painting as a Pastime,” which was suggested to him by Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis. Laura Bush talks about her husband losing himself in the work. Bush describes his process: “Crank up some music and let it go.” And we wonder, let what go?

Certainly not thoughts of his presidency. Personal Diplomacy offers a sentimental journey through Bush-era diplomacy that reduces the legacy of war, the erosion of American credibility abroad, and escalating geopolitical conflict to a series of chummy relationships with world leaders. Bush was a “personal diplomat,” we are told again and again in the exhibit, someone who asked world leaders about their families, took them on intimate drives about his ranch in Crawford, TX, and used the twinkle of his Texas charm to win friends. In the paintings, world leaders are depicted as one-note caricatures, with glinting crooked eyes, pursed lips, flesh-colored paint lathered-on like make-up. The portraits were mostly made from photographic images, and they retain the sense of being staged, personalities under surveillance.

As one would expect with any amateur, Bush’s skill varies greatly and there is no discernable style. Some of these images come naturally: the glimmering eyes of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a kind of tempestuous vigor of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Other attempts are more uneasy. Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar is a globby, smudge of a man; Tony Blair has a crooked mouth and faded skin, and he appears remade in the likeness of George W. Bush. In the two years since he took up his hobby, Bush has progressed as a painter. The results are impressive in the same way that discovering that your grandmother can needlepoint accurate-looking cow faces and kitten silhouettes is impressive. Some of the portraits are quick and gestural; others are more deliberate, with layered paint betraying the working and re-working of wayward lines. It is clear that Bush hasn’t just taken up painting, he has begun to obsess over it, spending untold hours laboring over his canvases and trying to perfect it.

To confront Bush in this exhibition is to tumble back into his world of blunt, jabbing assertions and jumbled syntax. As we wondered many times during Bush’s eight years in office, we can’t figure out if Bush’s paintings are an act of brazen audacity or crippling naivety. There is a jarring disconnect between the sunshine story of Bush’s foreign policy told in Personal Diplomacy and the reality of history, and a complete sincerity surrounding an art exhibition that presents the peculiar post-modern phenomenon of the former leader of the free world fumbling over which shade of pink to use for Vladimir Putin’s pursed lips. In fact, the entire exhibition’s lack of irony – its inability to see the absurdity in the project itself – underscores Bush’s real diplomatic failures, his inability to read the world’s double meanings, its slippery paradoxes – his failure to see reality not only as a stage for shock and awe, but as a theater of smoke and mirrors.

Bush’s art succeeds, though, where Bush succeeded as a politician, affecting the innocent charm of the common man. And yet, just like Bush’s political career, there is a sense that the strings are being pulled off-stage. Here is someone who, left to his own devises, would be perfectly happy giggling at his ability to paint his naked feet popping up through milky bathwater, or making a picture of his cat appear, like magic, on a canvas. But at the suggestion of a Southern Methodist University art professor and his handlers at the Bush Center, Bush made these new portraits, a spurious attempt to frame the president’s hobby in the context of his presidential legacy. You almost feel a little sorry for man. After his presidency, he retreated from the world to spend countless hours alone, fumbling with a brush, trying to control the world of a canvas, a world that is confined, defined, and master-able. And yet here is Bush’s earnestness and naivety once again dressed up in state regalia. He shoulders the burden of fudging-out the face of Jacques Chirac, his solitary hobby monitored and scrutinized, capitulating to the vulgar narration machine that is the Bush Presidential Center.