Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bush's Bathroom

Last week was President’s Day, and I’m celebrating by bringing you the paintings of former United States president George W. Bush. “Aren’t you a bit late?” you may ask. Yes, a bit. Bush’s new hobby has been all over TV, in the latest issue of The Week, and even favorably reviewed by everyone’s favorite art critic Jerry Saltz. And it’s also not President’s Day anymore. But I came across a website counting down the seconds until the meaning behind the art of Gorge W. Bush is revealed. Right now, it’s at 00 weeks 02 days 16 hours 47 minutes and 32 seconds. So there you go. There’s still time before the story really breaks.

George W. Bush, the Artist

If you haven’t already heard about Bush’s art, here’s the situation. On October 14, New York Magazine reported that our 43rd president had “taken up painting, making portraits of dogs and arid Texas landscapes.” On February 1, we got to see one of these dog paintings first hand on Laura and George’s respective Facebook pages. It was a portrait of the Bushs’ late Scottish Terrier Barney, and it was surprisingly good. Although it’s a bit hard to figure out where the fur ends and a black dog sweater begins, Bush handles Barney’s fur, ears, and eye like a pro. Or at least like an art school freshman experimenting with impressionistic doggy portraiture.

Bush apparently signs his work "43"

Anyway, on to the scandalous part. Early this month some dude (chick?) calling him(her?)self Guccifer hacked into a Bush family computer. It wasn’t all fun and games. He (she?) got security codes, addresses, phone numbers, and incredibly personal information. Including a horrible photo of Bush Senior in the hospital and plans for his funeral. It was bad. The FBI has launched a criminal investigation.

But what we’re interested in is not Bush 41’s health scare or clandestine information. It’s the art. There was a photo of Bush painting a picture of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Kennebunkport, Maine, but we’re going to ignore this painting too. It’s tiny, hard to see, and boring. Although it is interesting to note that Bush paints in the midst of exercise equipment.

He looks like he’s about to play tennis

No, Guccifer found the true treasures in an email from Bush to his sister Dorothy. They appear to be self-portraits. Naked. In a bathroom.

The first shows our former president standing in the shower, his back to us. It’s not sophisticated. In fact, it’s awkward and naive. Bush isn’t under the water. He’s facing the wrong direction, standing so close to the wall he looks like a toddler in time-out. And the apparent reflection of his face in the mirror just below the shower head is totally impossible. Not to mention those back muscles.

But the painting does have something going for it. For one, I sort of like the angle and shadows created by the glass of the shower door (see the hinge in the top left?). Beyond that though, it has an interesting emotional impact. It’s unnervingly bizarre, and yet so mundane and thoughtful that we actually start to empathize with Bush. It’s like he’s a real human being, taking showers just like the rest of us.

The second painting has all the emotion of the first, but with the added bonus of showing some formal artistic potential (I chose this one!). The knees could use a little work, but I really like the toes and hint of leg beneath the water. But mostly I like the depth. The angles of the walls and the tub, although off, really lead you into the painting. And did you see the faucet? While it looks more like a sink faucet than one on a bathtub, the tuned handle, the contrast of light and shadow, and even the stream of water are actually pretty good. Plus, I always love art made from the perspective of the subject. It’s like you’re inside the painting.

Everyone’s been trying to psychoanalyze these paintings, making connections to Hurricane Katrina, waterboarding, and even gay marriage (they assumed the reflection in the shower painting was of some other dude standing behind Bush). But Bush is just one more painting politician in the company of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, and Hitler. And in the end, I’m not sure I should be the one to judge him. I can’t remember what I was thinking, but even I once made a naked shower painting.

Can you tell which politician did which painting?

Saturday, February 16, 2013


It's not often that I get the chance to post about one of my choices being reworked. I guess that comes with the "living artist" territory.

Anyway, after deinstalling her Eastern State Penitentiary windows, Judith Schaechter added borders and expanded compositions. For the Con/Fines windows (including my favorite, Mary Magdalene), she created thick, stone-like stained glass frames that make the original centers seem cramped and isolated, but in a good way. While the context of Eastern State really made these pieces, and I think I may have preferred their unaltered state, I get that they needed a little something to highlight their fundamental concept and make them stand-alone works.

What do you think!?

To see the changes Schaechter made to her Eastern State Penitentiary windows, read her blog at

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Munch's Madness

A couple of weeks ago, I went to New York City to see three exhibitions: The Art of Scent at the Museum of Art and Design, and Inventing Abstraction and The Scream at the Museum of Modern Art. So today, I figured I’d talk about my favorite Munch. Surprise, surprise, it’s The Scream. Just not exactly the Scream that I saw.

The Scream I saw                               vs.                               The Scream I chose

We all know The Scream. It’s iconic. Andy Warhol did a series of silkscreens reproducing it along with other Munch works, The Simpsons parodied it, and the ubiquitous scream mask featured in the Scream movies and sold in just about every store around Halloween is based on it. They even sell screaming Scream pillows on the internet (I have one). And now, until April 29, you can see The Scream at MoMA up close and personal (ignoring the plexiglas barrier and the throngs of people).

What you'll see at MoMA

But one thing most of us don’t know is that there are four versions of The Scream. And that’s not counting the lithograph or the Munch works that have eerily similar subjects or compositions. The four works I’m talking about are so similar that, except for differences in media, they’re nearly identical. The version at MoMA is Munch’s pastel Scream from 1895. But like I said, that one’s not my favorite. My favorite is the 1893 tempera and crayon version. I’ll tell you why and talk about all of the versions a little later. First, I want to cover what they have in common.

The Scream lithograph and other similar Munch works (Despair 1892, Despair 1894, and Anxiety)

The Scream (the hypothetical conglomerate of all the versions) was originally titled Der Schrei der Natur, or The Scream of Nature, and is one (four) of the most emotionally powerful works of art out there. It’s set in Ekeburg, Norway looking out onto the Oslofjord and the cityscape of Oslo, and, if we take Munch’s diary entries at face value, it’s based on an actual experience.

I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired. And I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature.

But that’s where the resemblance to the real world stops and distortion begins. Some art historians think that Munch may have based The Scream’s sky on vibrant ash-induced sunsets after the Krakatau eruption in 1883 and the central figure on a mummy he may have seen. But I think that’s all silly speculation and doesn’t really matter one way or the other. Munch was a symbolist master and a precursor of the expressionist movement. He was using distorted, simplified forms, shallow, stage-like compositions, and “arbitrary” color (like van Gogh) to convey an emotional experience. He wasn’t going for realism. He painted a pasty, hairless, skull-faced man with no spine wearing a shapeless robe for God’s sake!

And Munch had plenty of emotion to work from. In addition to the typical fin de siècle anxieties, his mother and sister died when he was young, his father was a weirdo, and Munch himself was prone to excessive drunken “brawling.” Not far from the setting of The Scream, there was also a mental institution where another sister was locked up and a slaughterhouse that was said to be pretty hellish. Oh, and apparently the area was fairly popular for suicide.

The little known fact that The Scream was originally conceived as part of Munch’s Frieze of Life series shows just how mucked up Munch’s perceptions were. The series was made up of themes of love, angst, and death. The Scream was the culminating work in love. Munch believed that the ultimate outcome of love was despair.

Now back to the different versions. Munch supposedly made multiples because he found it hard to part with his work. We don’t know which one came first. It was either my favorite (the tempera and crayon version) or the Munch Museum’s crayon only Scream. Both were done in 1893. I’m going to guess that it might have been the crayon only one though, since it’s rougher and more washed out. Like a preliminary sketch. But I’m probably wrong.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, crayon on cardboard, 74 x 56 cm.

My favorite Scream is in Norway’s National Gallery, so I probably won’t be able to see it in person any time soon. But I managed to get my hands on a relatively large digital image, and just that takes my breath away. As a whole, the National Gallery’s version is the most put together. When you look close though, you can see how a mess of separate brushstrokes, washes, and lines work together to create the whole. I love how casual and irreverent each mark is. Even the white spatters in the lower right corner that look like bird poop are fantastic. I also think the figures in the background of this version are the best. Their tall, upright bodies and nearly invisible heads make them seem ghostly and mysterious.

The Scream currently at MoMA came two years later. It’s the most colorful, but it’s a bit too crisp for me. The comparatively sharp lines and the virtual rainbow of color make it seem somewhat cartoony. It does have a unique hand painted frame going for it though. It’s the only original frame left, and Munch wrote a poem on it describing his experience in Ekeburg!

The last Scream is also in the Munch Museum in Oslo and was done in tempera in 1910. Like the crayon version, it seems a bit rough. But it works. The flowing lines (look at those hands!) and the vacant, eyeless face makes it the most emotionally expressive of the bunch.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1910, tempra on cardboard, 83.5 x 66 cm.

In the end, it’s hard to distinguish quality and admiration from familiarity. I know I like The Scream, but if I hadn’t grown up with it would I have chosen it as my favorite? I can’t tell. But I will say one thing: On the other side of the wall The Scream is hung on at MoMA is Munch’s Madonna. I was surprised how drawn to it I was, and since everyone was crowded around The Scream, I got it all to myself.

 But I think I may like this 1894 painted version better than MoMA's lithograph and woodcut.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Schaechter Side Note

A new post will be up later today, but first I wanted to let everyone know that it is a small world after all.

I made a discovery while researching my last blog post that I find interesting (although I may be the only one):

Judith Schaechter and my father-in-law were in a show together at an art gallery I worked at a couple of summers ago!

Learn more, and check out some images here!