Preston Hollow resident George W. Bush has been spending much of his retirement, like Winston Churchill, engrossed in the finer art of painting. And while he’s no Bob Ross, Bush has honed a talent for portraiture, though 43’s choice of subject matter often raises more eyebrows than his chiaroscuro. Case in point: his latest batch of paintings engage with the very pressing and politically charged subject of immigration.
Bush is set to release a book of portraits of immigrants (43 of them, of course), and the subject matter is already creating some controversy. Critics point out that the former president is responsible for creating US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the agency that has implemented the current administration’s immigration policy, which led to families and children being detained and separated, often in squalid, inhumane conditions. The authority given to ICE by the Bush administration has allowed the U.S. government to commit some of the most abominable human rights abuses in this nation’s history.
Bush acknowledges that the subject is controversial in an introduction to the new book:
“While I recognize that immigration can be an emotional issue, I reject the premise that it is a partisan issue. It is perhaps the most American of issues, and it should be one that unites us,” Bush writes. “My hope is that this book will help focus our collective attention on the positive impacts that immigrants are making on our country.”
While I certainly understand the anger some might feel toward the idea that the man responsible for establishing ICE is now releasing a book filled with somewhat kitschy paintings of immigrants, I’d like to be more generous to our neighbor, the former president. After all, the current immigration crisis swirls around a tendency — in policy, media, and public opinion — to dehumanize those desperate people who are fleeing hardship and suffering in their own countries in the hope that they will find a better life in the United States. Bush appears to be attempting to redirect our attention to the humanity of these people through his portraits.
It is a common theme in the former president’s body of work: considering the humanity of individuals who are known mostly through the abstracting lens of the media. We first got a glimpse of Bush’s paintings in 2014, when he unveiled an exhibition at his presidential library on the campus of SMU that focused on the faces of foreign leaders he engaged with while in office. At the time, Jason Heid commented on Bush’s “literalist mind,” though perhaps the former president’s artwork is wrestling with more than surfaces. After all, politics, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.