By Matt Lombardi
Last year the art world was scandalized over a leaked flyer announcing that the Gagosian Gallery—the international colossus of contemporary art that has exhibited the work of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Damien Hirst—planned to show paintings by former president George W. Bush. It was an online prank, but now Bush has found a real gallery for his work, at the presidential library and museum in Dallas that bears his name. This weekend Bush unveiled over two dozen portraits of world leaders—a departure from the dog and bathtub portraits that leaked in 2013—in a debut gallery exhibition titled, “The Art of Leadership.”
Bush is not alone in the celebrity-painting game. Jim Carrey, Lucy Liu, and Sylvester Stallone, among other film stars, have also asserted themselves as painters with gallery shows. Jeremy Evans, the 6’9” forward for the Utah Jazz, turned last year’s NBA slam dunk contest into performance art by dunking over a self portrait of himself dunking over a self portrait of himself, bringing live sport the closest it may come to mise en abyme. There are plenty of amateur artists in the world—what makes this set particularly intriguing is that they already have careers that other people dream of. Ask a child what she or he would like to be when they grow up, you are likely to hear one of the aforementioned astronaut-type answers: The president! A movie star! A basketball player! So what does it mean when these tiny fantasists do grow up to achieve this kind of high-profile success, but really want to paint?
Is art so revered that it surpasses Hollywood celebrity, world leadership, and feats of physical genius in the public’s realm of admiration? It’s an appealing supposition.
I like to call it “insider outsider art,” when the art brut’s maker is already a prominent cultural insider. I am not talking about the trend of gallery-coached celebrities as performance art marathoners (Jay-Z, Tilda Swinton, Milla Jovovich) or of publicity-savvy actors dabbling in media experimentation (James Franco, Joaquin Phoenix, Shia Labeouf), but the most obvious kind of artist in the child’s definition: the painter who paints to paint, and, in this case, is really really famous.
The first step to unpacking this phenomenon is to ask the obvious question: Why does one paint at all? Is it an inherent human instinct whose earliest evidence (so far) dates back 40,000 years when an individual expressed symbolism on a rock? Does it matter? As painting’s narrative grows more complicated, it has demonstrated the ability to transcend one human urge for another, or inspire any combination of urges (honoring deities, creating a record, technique, rebellion, art about art). But it seems clear that this is not what motivates the insider-outsider artist. They do not take part in the current dialogue of art, their work is often rudimentary realism or slapdash abstract paintings unaware of the conversations or mediums being explored in the present art world, nor does it pay homage to or continue a cultural tradition, nor does the work give meaningful reference to a specific moment in art history, which of course defines these individuals as outsiders, yet they readily use their insider status to promote their work and self-appoint the title of painter over hobbyist.
When I asked Bridget Donahue, the director at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (an established West Village gallery that makes artists famous, not the other way around), what to make of the motivations of insider-outsider artists, she had a few suggestions, “Classic romance. Final frontier. Age or other successes warrant a boldness to explore, ‘what if I possess an unknown talent or knack?’” These are reasonable suggestions, though could also stand as catalysts for other ventures, but Donahue mentioned something else: “Art is revered.”
Reverence, I thought, now we’re getting somewhere.
Is art so revered that it surpasses Hollywood celebrity, world leadership, and feats of physical genius in the public’s realm of admiration? It’s an appealing supposition, suggesting as it does that making art—rather than some more obvious and shallow pursuit like moneymaking, or politics, or football—is at the apex of society, and that maybe deep down all the prime ministers and prima donnas really wish they were Picasso. There is also a sense that painting stands as a noble act that can help validate those cumbersome existential classics—Who am I? To be or not to be?—often an eventual high-order concern for the famous.
Imagine the public’s disinterest if we learned that a former president liked to garden or a professional athlete liked to cook. Yet when art is on the line we grow curious and judgmental.
More interesting than the question of why this group paints, though, is the question of why we care. Imagine the public’s disinterest if we learned that a former president liked to garden or a professional athlete liked to cook. Yet when art is on the line we grow curious and judgmental. There’s another side to this 40,000 year old tradition: the looking.
Ad Reinhardt, the American painter, critic, and luminous cartoonist dedicated much of his work to explaining why and how to look at art. Reinhardt was the subject of an affecting retrospective at the David Zwirner gallery this winter, constructed predominantly of his dynamic comics from the 1940s to the 1960s discussing the modernist stuff of the era (cubism, abstract expressionism) that mainstream art critics (The New Yorker) often balked at. I headed over there one afternoon to look for answers.
Hundreds of framed Reinhardt cartoons hung on the Zwirner gallery walls and sat under glass at long tables. Some as simple as a small black and white panel of a man struggling inside the bottom half of an hourglass, while other larger multi-paneled text-ridden sequences used collage and delirious charts to take on their titles, How to Look at an Artist or How to Look at Looking, but the most enlightening perspective might lie in Reinhardt’s famous two-panel comic (which Zwirner had printed on a t-shirt that I regret not buying).
In the first panel, a simple caricature of a glib 1940s businessman in a suit and fedora stands next to an abstract painting, pointing and offering the familiar museumgoer’s question, “Ha Ha What does this represent?” In the next panel, the abstract painting comes to life with angry eyes and its own pointed finger to retort, “What do you represent?”
Perhaps art does say as much about its audience as it does about the artist, and we are curious to experience (sometimes perform) our reactions to paintings by public figures who we are used to knowing only through the orchestrated haze of professional publicity and the whims of media narratives. Art gets us closer.
We know the honest act of making art, as well as the dishonest act, exposes a person, because art opens a doorway between the artist and the viewer, even if that viewer is observing a slapdash attempt by a wannabe painter to get paid before their gruesome celebrity fizzles. The acquitted murderer, George Zimmerman, has been hocking paintings on ebay (the first one sold for $100,000). The obvious lack of time or meditation concerning his product—a small crude oil painting depicting the American flag in shades of blue that quotes the Pledge of Allegiance—gives us a sense or, confirms our suspicions of, who he really is.
Bush told his art teacher, “There’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body. Your job is to find him.”
Whether we have strong preconceived notions of the insider-outsider artist or not, the artwork is always revealing. We see Jim Carrey’s solipsistic search for meaning through the trifling philosophical text he paints (the word faith crushing hope), or heavy-handed imagery (a wild-haired silhouette meditating in the lotus position) and in his portraits of celebrities like Pamela Anderson whose oversized eyes are each depicted as a (self-referential?) man standing before the moon. Sylvester Stallone produces abstract expressionist works like “Never Ever Land” rendering the downfall of Michael Jackson (a giant phallic arrow next to the “King of Pop” points downward), which was on display last year in his solo show at The State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Stallone seems a fitting insider-outsider artist for a country whose president also likes to flex his muscles. Lucy Liu painted under her real name, Yu Ling, until she recently used her industry name to publish a book of her art to accompany a gallery show that includes minimalist figurative black and white paintings with not-so-thought-provoking titles like, “Revealing The Concealed” (a title working in more ways than she may realize).
George W. Bush is not the only American president to display his paintings. Jimmy Carter has brandished his canvases too. Dwight D. Eisenhower, possibly influenced by his good friend and fellow painter, Winston Churchill (who wrote a book on the act of painting), also put brush to canvas and once had a show in New York. In the case of Bush’s intimate semi-nude bathroom self portraits, which originally introduced us to Bush the painter after the pieces were lifted from a hacked email account, it was fitting (and yet disheartening) to learn his attempt at self reflection is literally a reflection of himself, in a shaving mirror.
But as a public we cherish the vulnerability art confesses. It’s a venture we think we can see through, or fear can see through us. Not only is art humanizing for all involved, but can be democratizing too. To set one’s self out in the creation of art puts the maker at the mercy of the public and reminds us we’re all stuck in the shared empathy conversation that makes us different from our pets.
In the grand scheme, the public pursuits of the insider-outsider artist will likely never achieve the lasting cultural prominence of fully realized art. The sad truth of the NBA is that Jeremy Evans only came in second with his performance art dunk last year and was not invited back for a chance to claim the title this February; it was a fleeting moment on Twitter and the following day’s sports blogs, though George W. Bush seems headed for Julian Schnabel-esque levels of artistic incorrigibility. (He told his art teacher, “There’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body. Your job is to find him.”)
Although Bush’s postured interview on TODAY last Friday morning hosted by his daughter, Jenna Bush Hagar, was performed to frame Bush as the unpretentious artist, in an appearance on the Tonight Show a few months ago, when asked about one of his new “hobbies,” Bush said to the then host, Jay Leno, “I am a painter.”
Leno joked, “Oh you are a painter now.”
Bush laughed it off, but quickly retorted, “You may not think I’m a painter. I think I’m a painter.”
Matt Lombardi’s stories and essays have appeared in Details, The Daily Beast, The Millions, and The Bellevue Literary Review. He teaches at Baruch College and is finishing his first novel.