Hunter Biden: Emotionally Honest, Generically Smooth
Hunter Biden is an emerging artist from Wilmington, Del. He is now, like no shortage of emerging artists, based in Los Angeles, but unlike them he is making his debut in New York at ample scale, with a solo exhibition at the Georges Bergès Gallery in SoHo. The show is titled “The Journey Home,” and it is not small: more than two dozen paintings, works on paper and overpainted photographs, installed across two floors, melodramatically spotlit. Circumstances require that the show is currently open only by appointment. When I saw it this past weekend, I was greeted by a security guard charged to protect the staff from death threats.
Mr. Biden, though not trained as a painter, has been making art since childhood, and I can say that the show is more substantial than an amateur’s dabbling. (He was formerly a lobbyist and private equity boss, though you can still have an artistic disposition behind the desk: Paul Gauguin was a stockbroker, Jeff Koons a commodities trader.) I can add — and perhaps I should shift here from the language of New York critics to Washington diplomats — that it’s not the sort of exhibition that would make a current M.F.A. student feel jealous or unsophisticated by comparison.
The most pleasant of Mr. Biden’s paintings are abstracted florals and landscapes, composed of layers of watery pigment on Yupo, a nonabsorbent synthetic paper (actually more like a plastic) whose resistance permits easy marbling and coating. The artist blows the ink through a metal straw, resulting in exploded blossoms that look like lily pads, dandelions scattered by the wind, or viruses under the microscope. They’re pretty. They have the generic smoothness of the art you might see in a posh hotel room, or the end papers of a first edition. Certainly they display a command of the fluid medium that reflects a seriousness of purpose, even if you forget them days or minutes later.
Mr. Biden takes greater risks with his paintings on canvas, for better or for worse. Some satisfactory abstractions coalesce from hundreds of blocks of solid color, divided by black rivulets into maplike forms. With a little more time, these abstractions may edge toward something like the art of Fred Tomaselli, who pushes abstraction into the cosmic and the psychedelic.
But then there are leaden images of black birds, living and dead. Ghastly new-age portraits of a bald person, or maybe a bald extraterrestrial. A self-portrait in marbly blues and purples that would fit in well at the Burning Man festival. Signs and styles blend fast and arbitrarily: accretions of pigment à la Mark Bradford, dense expanses of dots that recall Indigenous Australian painting, a Californian pool in tribute to David Hockney (though Mr. Biden’s has bizarre, distended human hands arising from the water).
Mr. Biden has described his art as “literally keeping me sane,” and more than one painting here features text detailing his addiction and recovery. (“He began to write a new story,” reads the trippy self-portrait.) The painting of the bald figure bears a citation of the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. Mr. Biden has scrawled these quotes, curiously, in a gold paint marker, the sort of craft-shop instrument beloved of scrapbookers. The gold marker recurs throughout this show, outlining bare trees and mountain ridges, rounded Gaelic characters, and quite a few snakes, some of which appear to have been done with a stencil. The snakes may have some personal significance, molting and rebirth and all that; the symbology may also, more than anything, just suggest being a dude.
All of this feels rather random, rather personal, rather ingenuous. If the painter’s name has inflamed some observers still litigating the last election, the show put me in mind less of Mr. Biden’s father than of a subsequent resident of Number One Observatory Circle: Karen Pence, who used her time in the vice president’s mansion to promote art therapy for the traumatized and the recovering. On one point, at least, Mrs. Pence and Mr. Biden would surely agree: Painting and drawing can do wonders for a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. As for public esteem, that may be another matter.
The Journey Home: A Hunter Biden Solo Exhibition
Through Nov. 15, Georges Bergès Gallery, 462 West Broadway, SoHo; 212-475-4524. Visits are by appointment; the gallery says it plans to open to the public on Nov. 11.