Through the hate tunnel: Grappling with the paintings of George W. Bush | The Monthly

Grappling with the paintings of George W. Bush


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

November 29, 2018

Through the hate tunnel

By Richard Cooke
Grappling with the paintings of George W. Bush


But in silence, in dreams’ projections,

While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,

So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,

With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,

Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)


Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,

Straight and swift to my wounded I go


– Walt Whitman, “The Wound-Dresser”


If you are not with me by the end of this, I understand. Some of you may not make it to the close of the paragraph, and that’s fine. We can meet later, when and if you have forgiven me for a belief that is not just a lapse in taste, but probably a failure of moral judgement as well. Here it is: I think the most exciting contemporary painter working in America today is former president George W. Bush.

I do not hold this belief ironically. (Sometimes, I wish I did.) I do not appreciate the art of George W. Bush (the art of George W. Bush! even the phrase sticks in your eye) in the so-bad-it’s-good way you can enjoy the singing of the tone-deaf former American Idol contestant William Hung, or the films of Ed Wood. I appreciate it in a so-good-it’s-good way, just as Frank Zappa thought The Shaggs’ naïve music was “better than The Beatles”.

It is at least not a lonely belief. The Bush oeuvre has been surprisingly well-received by critics – I share clandestine favourites with a former lecturer in fine art, and when I confessed my secret shame with an art PhD, he said only “I prefer the early period Bush.” True, neither of these fans made a special trip to Tempe, Arizona, to see the paintings in person, but I went half in the hope of finding some unreproducible element in the physical works. Some element that would repel me, an aura that could inoculate against the daubings of a war criminal.

Back in 2003, the satirical site The Onion ran a piece called “Bush To Lovely Chilean Ambassador: ‘I Must Paint You’”, and that was the whole joke, just George W. Bush painting. When that came true, they ripped the heart out of it anew: “George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him Everywhere”. The best satire is prescient, and this was again on the mark. This latest exhibition, Portraits of Courage, features portraits of 98 wounded combat veterans – and, this part is unsaid – that George W. Bush sent to war. His subjects were injured during his misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The question of separating “the artist from the art” is tedious and probably unresolvable, predicated on a false dichotomy that positions art as always morally improving. But these unique circumstances re-enliven it. If history has granted artists a licence for transgression, can it do the same for the artist who invaded Iraq? This catastrophic act of illegal belligerence was a war of aggression, what the Nuremberg judgment called “not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”. 

This is a different order of moral error from alcoholism or mistreated lovers. Bush himself has dwelled on the question when considering his artistic hero Lucian Freud, a painter he is in “awe” of. “The subject matter is a little disturbing, particularly since some of the models were his daughters,” Bush told the inflight magazine of American Airlines. “But you have to separate the nature of a person from the talent of a person.” 

So far, Bush is not applying this logic to himself, and does not see the need. This autumnal career change is not asking posterity for a mulligan, and if Bush can salvage his legacy, it will be via comparison to Trump, not artworks. No filigree of guilt is detectable, and in interviews he has maintained the just cause defence. But his paintings are still a moral enterprise, and a very complex one. His real antecedent is not Freud, but Winston Churchill, and it was a historian suggesting Churchill’s example that lead Bush to pick up a paintbrush. Until that moment, the self-described “art agnostic” felt that “something was missing” in his post-presidential life.

Churchill began painting in 1915, when he was already 40, and later published a book about his hobby. “When I get to heaven,” he wrote in Painting as a Pastime, “I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so to get to the bottom of the subject.” Churchill’s own war crimes should lead to a different afterlife destination, but the book that inspired George W. Bush to set up his own easel is charming. Thinking alone, Churchill said, could not relieve the mind of worry: “the stronger the will, the more futile the task.” (This sounds like a rebuke of another onetime painter, Hitler, whose best pictures, of tanks on fire, are suspiciously rosy.) In the British tradition, Churchill was at his best when putting the ocean on canvas – you can see he was thinking about Turner while working on Sunset Over the Sea, Orange and Purple, and not quite hitting it, which I like. He also had an amateur’s enthusiasm for colour – “I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns” – a yen that Bush shares.

By all accounts Bush ran a consultative White House, and his studio practice also shows the influence of counsellors. His work has three distinct periods, reflecting his three most important teachers. The first era is his truly naive beginnings, works that were never intended for public display, and revealed only when his sister’s email account was hacked (a coincidence: the hacker was named Guccifer, and the hacker at the centre of Russiagate is named Guccifer 2.0). This series is not my favourite, but I can see why that PhD likes them. Bush was annoyed when they leaked, and said he “found it very interesting the first painting that came out was the one I painted of myself in the bathtub. I did so because I wanted to kind of shock my instructor.”

These authentic rudiments on canvas resonated beyond their novelty. The critic Jerry Saltz said there was finally something about Bush that he liked. Can a former president really be an “outsider”, in the outsider art sense? But George W. Bush is outside the art world, and perhaps any former leader finds themselves outside the world they knew. His second period, portraits of world leaders, show a talent stumbling like a foal rather than crawling like a baby. Most impactful was a Munchian, ghoulish portrait of Vladimir Putin – when artist met subject, Putin obsessed over comparing the relative size and power of their dogs, an absurd but telling detail Bush tried to convey in a paint.

The most recent series was completed under the tutelage of the Fort Worth painter Sedrick Huckaby, who has documented African-American life and the Occupy movement in heavy impasto. (The apparent political tension between master and pupil has been negotiated but not explained – Bush does not rate a mention on Huckaby’s Wikipedia page, for example.) When Huckaby saw Bush’s world leaders series, he suggested pushing on towards “people that you know that others don’t”, and suggested that the former president should “try pushing the limits of colour”. Portraits is the result.

The exhibition had toured four cities – had it been popular in Arizona? “It’s not doing as well as we’d hoped, to be honest,” one of the counter staff at the Arizona Heritage Center admitted. The local news station, KSTAR, had advertised it, rather awkwardly, to “valley art and military supporters”, but I had the first room to myself. (A detail on entering: I have not before seen a fine art show listing “Major League Baseball” as one of the sponsors.)

Portraits of Courage opens with Bush narrating a rigid video, to-camera. His speech, even in this context, retains its negative Pavlovian powers, and the clip was brief enough to play over and over in the hours I was there. By the end, only one phrase still registered as words – the former president saying “the symptoms of post-traumatic stress”. But I was not deterred. In real life, George W. Bush’s paintings are arresting, sometimes moving, and convey an irreducible meaning I still cannot figure out.

He is prolific – this collection of 68 paintings and a four-panel mural was produced in only a year – but they look energetic rather than rushed. The painter knows his art history, but his work is not derivative. It is, ironically, more humane than Lucian Freud’s, and has its own curiosity, expressed through an unorthodox palette and means of creating light (we should be careful about calling this a talent for rendition). Bush junior favours “closely cropped portraits, that I hope give viewers a sense of the remarkable character of these men and women”. Some subjects sit almost pressed into the frame, and the colour liberated by Sedrick Huckaby flows out. A golf-course sky is electric orange, a shoe melds into the dirt in the same unearthly hue, the strokes are thick and erratic enough to show naked canvas, and make unconscious symmetries.

He is not great at faces (their off-kilter elongations are the only true Freudian echo, though a discordant one), but he is good at facial expressions, a confusing combination. Impasto holds original positions – a beard is spackled on like cake frosting; pupils are two dabs of mud; one man’s under-eyes, hollowed by torment, are expressed as convex, like a photo negative. Some of the better pieces centre visages hidden by caps or glasses. A portrait of Sergeant Daniel Casara falls into this category. Often, Bush makes light fall on his subject’s foreheads as strips of lacquery cream or rose, but on Casara, it is purple, green, egg-shell blue, burnt orange, umbery brown, purple and black, an off-colour spectrum coming through the prism of this man’s experience. The right side of his face is in shadow, the ear almost silhouetted against the crimson background.

Unseen are Casara’s legs, crushed when his armoured personnel carrier hit a mine. The sergeant had 24 surgeries, but met Bush via mountain biking. A cynic might think all the close-cropping dodges the question of these broken bodies, but we do see amputations, and sometimes deep fissures from head injuries. Prostheses, though, are usually pictured on the golf course, at the Bush Institute Warrior Open tournament. In Sergeant Saul Martinez, a double amputee flexes his artificial legs as he hoofs a wood shot. The subject has looked up (I bet he sliced it), and the spectators, so scraped out they are almost spectral, follow the ball in flight as well. Martinez’s arms and shoulders, postured optimistically, are bordered in thick white, like “action” lines on a cartoon.

Overall, the wounded are painted with sympathy, but in the process of overcoming. Bush emphasises the psychological wounds – in part, he says, to diminish stigma – but the faces are harrowed rather than haunted. So Master Sergeant Scott Neil depicts a PTS sufferer in homely nobility. In the book accompanying the exhibition, Neil describes himself as “through the hate tunnel and on the other side and enjoying being a great American”. True despair is absent, so is disfigurement. After World War One, when George Grosz and Otto Dix drew casualties to try and stop more of them being made, they forced heroless imagery upon the viewer: their subjects had suppurating skin, smashed faces. If, for the Neue Sachlichkeit artists, the “war cripple” was a metaphor for the Weimar Republic itself (a “political mutant”, Robert Hughes called it), Bush’s paintings place the United States as limping, but only between strides.

Had this mild propaganda been controlled, Portraits of Courage would succeed only as a hyper-patriotic salute, a salon of what the theorists Nicole Markotić and Robert McRuer memorably called “crip nationalism”, where the disabled subject is invisible, until it benefits the state. But it was not controlled. Artworks escape their creators, and just as Rage Against the Machine’s anti-imperialist rock music was turned up and used to torture in Guantanamo Bay, so the ex-commander-in-chief’s art distorts, and uncovers the lie behind “Mission Accomplished”. Perhaps Sedrick Huckaby’s influence has wormed down all the way into the subconscious. In the final room was a large mural, depicting members of each of the United States Armed Forces. Instead of triumphal, it was uncannily reminiscent, in feel as well as form, of Joe Coleman’s portrait of the Manson Family.

The militaristic German writer Ernst Jünger had a sensibility once described as l’art pour l’art, but for war. In his novel The Glass Bees, Jünger dwelled on the post-battle defacement and deformity caused by industrial weaponry:

The brutal exhibition of severed flesh shocked me … Wasn’t it an integral part of technical perfection and the intoxication of it …? Mankind has waged wars since the world began, but I can’t remember one single example in the Iliad where the loss of an arm or a leg is reported. Mythology reserved mutilation for monsters, for human beasts of the race of Tantalus or Procrustes … It is an optical illusion to attribute these mutilations to accidents. Actually, accidents are the result of mutilations which took place long ago in the embryo of our world; and the increase in amputations is one of the symptoms bearing witness to the triumph of the morality of the scalpel. The loss occurred long before it was visibly taken into account.

Sitting in front of the mural was the only other visitor, a young man, who watched it intently, while talking on the phone in Arabic. Who was he? What did he think? I never found out – the call continued until I left. I did not have the nerve to interrupt, and did not know what I thought myself. All good art is complicating; the good art of a world leader more complicating still. Its purpose is to speculate on the unknowable: the nature of power, who we are, why we keep doing this to ourselves. Where logic fails to convey contradictory answers, we turn to aesthetics. Here, a high vantage point and some talent was no closer to producing understanding. Not for the first time, George W. Bush transmitted cluelessness. Only this time it was a melancholy kind, a human cluelessness, which did not transcend culpability, but accidentally confessed to it.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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