Former President George W. Bush probably won't be offered wall space in this fall's Carnegie International, despite creating two of the most discussed paintings of the year. The public wasn't supposed to know about Mr. Bush's predilection for painting literal windows into his interior life.
The rap against Mr. Bush has always been that for a man of such steely convictions, he's not particularly introspective. The two paintings recently "liberated" from his private email account have forced a reconsideration of what we thought about the 43rd president's artistic life (or lack thereof).
Violating Mr. Bush's privacy, a hacker called "Guccifer" has provided the public with a peek into the former president's psychic landscape where grout, plumbing and running water intersect in a previously unknown language of alienation. These variations of self-portraits feature Mr. Bush -- or a spiritual doppelganger -- mulling the unbearable lightness of his being in the contemplative isolation of a shower and a bathtub. [See them here.]
In the shower painting, Mr. Bush stands in the lower right-hand corner, his well-muscled back turned to the viewer in mid-flex. He is naked from his crown of gray hair down to his mid-back. It is a pose that perfectly captures his lack of interest in both history and in those who would judge him.
The immobile figure also bristles with narcissism and a touch of moral catatonia. Mr. Bush is a man who knows he's in good shape and doesn't mind flaunting it. If it is possible to project both self-absorption and disconnectedness, the former president has discovered the secret.
The figure stands next to, but not under, a shower head gushing a steady torrent of water. The water never touches the figure posed in front of beige shower tiles. The top half of Mr. Bush's face is reflected in a shaving mirror jutting from the shower head. It looks like both a disembodied conscience and a thought balloon from a comic strip. There is even a hint of mischievousness in his eyes that may be a slip of the brush.
The more competently composed of the two paintings invites the viewer to see the world from the perspective of a man sitting in a tub, partially submerged in water. The knees and toes, presumably Mr. Bush's, break the surface of the water. The legs are the only parts of his body that are visible.
Meanwhile, water pours out of the faucet and into the tub. The tub water is depicted in a way that accentuates the isolation of the figure's knees. A study in nonchalance feels more like a study in moral anxiety as the water rises in defiance of proper perspective. If this is meant to illustrate a self-administered baptism that washes away his sins, it is a failure. Still, a semi-nude self-portrait by a former president is a first. It is historic for that reason alone.
Whatever these two paintings are really about, they show the artist's emotional ambivalence. Because Mr. Bush made a point of asking few questions during his eight-year presidency, the temptation to read these canvases as unconscious mea culpas about water-boarding and other excesses during the War on Terror is overwhelming. The compositional elements don't line up with that kind of specificity, rendering such a narrow interpretation a tad too convenient. These paintings may be about a lot of things, but guilt isn't one of them.
Mr. Bush's paintings are reminiscent of the alienated pool-side figures that populate the work of David Hockney, an artist I doubt Mr. Bush is familiar with. Then again, it was widely reported that Mr. Bush developed a taste for existentialist literature after 9/11 and found Camus' "The Stranger" an especially welcome companion. Consequently, it isn't safe to assume that Mr. Hockney's paintings of lonely people completely escaped his notice.
It is more likely that the president has come by this style of painting honestly after taking some kind of weird internal inventory. Truth be told, Mr. Bush isn't a "bad" painter, just an inexperienced one. His shower painting is clumsy, but riveting in its own way, while his tub portrait works on a lot of levels.
When I heard that Mr. Bush had taken up painting, I immediately thought of a dog riding a bicycle. It was such an absurd notion, I had to laugh. But that was partisan snobbery on my part. After all, Eisenhower and Churchill painted. Nelson Mandela produced a series of prison lithographs. Reagan doodled caricatures of world leaders.
After Nixon resigned, Bob Dylan used to get a lot of applause whenever he sang: "But even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked." Mr. Bush has always taken these things literally.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.