The Critical Mass

Bush-league paintings

In general, my traditional embargo on the news while vacationing remained intact last weekend. If you’re trying to clear the head while spending time with friends in a snowbound B&B in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, it’s best to not know the latest moves in the Republican insurrection against America. That stuff is always there, it can wait until I get home.

George W. Bush, "Untitled," 2011 or 2012.

George W. Bush, "Untitled," 2011 or 2012.

Of course, everyone else at the inn had their iPads, smart phones and other anti-social media devices in hand, so I couldn’t duck every piece of news. You’d be surprised – or maybe not, if you watch The Daily Show With Jon Stewart – at the roasting a group of lapsed Christians can lay on the Catholic church after we heard Sunday morning that the Pope was retiring. “To a Florida condo with a 12-year-old boy?” someone laughed. Yes, the Catholic church still has some credibility issues.

When I was back up and running amongst the media herd Tuesday morning, this bit of news stunned me: The private e-mails of a former president of the United States have been hacked. Stop and think about this for a moment. The guy was once the leader of the free world, as the cliché goes. And now some computer geek is trolling through his correspondence, releasing some of it to the general public. And that’s how the art world has been enhanced by The George W. Bush Nudes.

Two nude self portraits. Tasteful nudes, admittedly: We are exposed to no evidence that this was once the world’s most powerful man. In one painting, the artist reposes in his bathtub, his knees and toes emerging from the water. As often was the case during the Bush presidency, the perspectives seem off. But so did Picasso’s. Genius prevails.

George W. Bush, "Untitled," 2011 or 2012.

George W. Bush, "Untitled," 2011 or 2012.

In the second painting, drawing much more attention from the art world, the artist depicts himself standing naked in his shower. It is a curious picture from the get-go. The subject is seen from the back, raising the question: Where was the artist standing when he painted this? Behind himself? Behind a presidential stand-in? Perhaps he was just using his artistic license, an artist’s interpretation of what a 66-year-old man looks like in the shower. The fact that he can’t see himself might explain why the shoulder blades are misplaced or curiously tensed, as though he’s bracing himself for a blow from a 2×4. The shower water falls limply, as though the water pressure in the house is weak, and the nude figure chooses to not waste his time standing beneath it. Instead, he seems to have his face pressed to the tile wall, as though asking, perhaps existentially: “What is this?” Or perhaps he is urinating; men do that in the shower. The expression is visible in a small shaving mirror hanging from the shower nozzle. This was a familiar image throughout the Bush presidency: A face of the perplexed, the confused. The artist wisely places the figure in the lower-right quadrant of the canvas, saving the viewer from being exposed to presidential ass.

Both paintings are filled with daylight, as though the presidential bathroom is outfitted with large windows, exposing the neighborhood and E! network cameras to gratuitous moments of a former king with no clothes.

Other world leaders have taken to the canvas. Churchill, Eisenhower and Hitler. People rarely appeared in their paintings. All three favored pastoral landscapes and architecture, although Hitler did a few bombed-out roads recalled from his service during World War I. Later generations of politicians have been emboldened by today’s technology: Former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner posting a shot of his crotch on Twitter.

The Bush Nudes harken back to that earlier generation of leader (Although only the most discriminating of collectors is likely to be interested in a Churchill nude). Yet Bush’s art runs deeper than a Hitler vase of flowers. Bush’s paintings also offer an obvious, subliminal message. Here is a man attempting to cleanse himself.

But this Internet hack job has revealed something much more curious about Bush and his post-presidential mindset: Here’s a retired man who manufactured two wars, established torture as American foreign policy, attacked the civil rights of U.S. citizens and nearly destroyed the world economy, and all we find in his e-mails are a few crappy acrylic paintings?

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