The George W. Bush Presidential Center sits idly on the campus of Southern Methodist University, overlooking a deeply rutted practice field, a few tennis courts and a boulevard lined with frat houses.
Like its namesake, the building seems to pride itself in being almost aggressively average; a stack of bricks and square windows periodically interrupted by the occasional column. It appears – for lack of a better term – bored, kind of like W. must be these days, five years removed from the White House and well on his way to becoming a very fortuitous footnote.
At least that’s the takeaway from a new exhibit at the Center: “The Art of Leadership,” running from April 4th through June 3rd. This collection of Bush’s portraits of world leaders is meant to convey his homespun brand of diplomacy (“It starts with getting to know each other,” is the quote that greets visitors), but it mostly comes across as the work of a recent retiree with way too much time on his hands.
Or, to put it another way: As a painter, Bush is a very good president.
The 30 works on display are delightfully amateurish, employing the same broad brushstrokes and flat, monochromatic backgrounds that you’d typically see in a high school art show (also not unlike the average high school student, Bush can’t seem to paint hands). Of course, despite what his critics may suggest, W. isn’t some teenager, he’s the former leader of the free world, so one can’t help but read deeper into his art…whether it warrants further investigation or not.
His portrait of good pal Tony Blair is stark and striking, instilling his subject with a decisive, almost heroic quality. The swirling greys beneath the eyes of Afghan president Hamid Karzai hint at the unending struggles to set up stake in the nation. And former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is portrayed as a playful scamp, silver hair flowing, half-smile creasing his face, which makes sense when you learn that the two once took a road trip to Graceland. (W. really was something special, wasn’t he?)
It’s easy to tell which leaders Bush felt a particular affinity for, and even when it’s not, a series of placards does it for you: some variation of “friend” is used to describe nearly a dozen leaders.
Not surprisingly, the most interesting paintings in the collection are also the ones where W.’s conflicts are apparent – China’s Jiang Zemin is cast in a ghostly pallor, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert’s bald dome is epically lit from above, making him appear ghoulish, and if you can get a read on Bush’s thoughts about Russian president Vladimir Putin (aside from “This guy’s a serial killer”), you’re a better art critic than I.
Is all this just a case of the painter being more important than the paintings? Absolutely. Even Bush admits as much in a glossy video shown to visitors, chuckling “The signature is worth more than the painting” while Laura looks on with a 1,000-yard stare. While other former White House occupants form Global Initiatives and seek to eradicate diseases, W. seems content to kick back and paint — a decision that only adds another wrinkle to his already complicated legacy.
But if you think Bush is overly concerned with any of that, well, you probably didn’t pay attention during his presidency. In that same video, he describes his artistic process thusly: “Sometimes I just crank up some music and let ‘er go.”
And while he doesn’t reveal what’s on his playlist, Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” seems like a logical choice. After all, as he’s continued to prove throughout his time in the public eye, W. is definitely simple.