The emergence of new paintings by former President George W. Bush last week reignited the troublesome question of what distinguishes good figure painting from amateur efforts. Bush himself is modest about his work, and makes no claim that his efforts have yielded any masterpieces yet.
But a strange thing happens when people compare mediocre but earnest work to serious art: Oftentimes there is substantial aesthetic overlap in some of the most salient features. Take this magnificent painting, “Inauguration,” by Jack Levine, on display as part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition “Modern American Realism.” Among other things, Levine is channeling the untutored, even amateurish look that defines a substantial amount of American painting over the past century. The figure on the right is about as bluntly rendered to look like Woodrow Wilson as some of Bush’s efforts to capture the likeness of world leaders such as Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin. Throughout the Smithsonian exhibition, and the even larger “Made in America” exhibition at the Phillips Collection which includes many of the same painters, you find a willing embrace of crude, almost cartoonish figuration.
But Levine is after something very different, and achieves far more than any amateur painter. The picture space is dazzlingly full and complex, loaded with symbols of American political life, which seem to gather around the central figures like a storm cloud of confused and ambivalent meanings. One can’t tell if the figures are inside or outside, but they are definitely in a single, coherent, expressionist space. And that space, like American politics, feels raw, rough, chaotic and noisy. The faces may be mask-like, but one senses the mask not as a lack of painterly competence, but an expertly rendered suggestion that everyone is hiding something.