Hunter Biden Solo Show: Emotionally Honest, Generically Fluid

Hunter Biden is an emerging artist from Wilmington, Del. He is now, as there is no shortage of emerging artists, based in Los Angeles, but unlike them, he is making his New York debut on a large scale, with a personal exhibition at the Galerie Georges Bergès in SoHo. The exhibition is called “The Journey Home” and it is not small: more than two dozen paintings, works on paper and repainted photographs, installed on two floors, lit in a melodramatic way. Circumstances dictate that the fair is currently open by appointment only. When I saw him last weekend, I was greeted by a security guard tasked with protecting staff from death threats.

Mr. Biden, although not trained as a painter, has been making art since he was a child, and I can say the show is more substantial than just an amateur dabbling. (He was once a lobbyist and boss of private equity, although you can still have an artistic disposition behind the desk: Paul Gauguin was a stockbroker, Jeff Koons a commodities trader.) I can add – and maybe Should I switch here from the language of From critics in New York to diplomats in Washington – that this isn’t the kind of exposure that would make a current MFA student jealous or simplistic in comparison.

The most enjoyable of Mr. Biden’s paintings are flowers and abstract landscapes, composed of layers of aqueous pigment over Yupo, a non-absorbent synthetic paper (actually more like plastic) whose strength allows for easy marbling and coating. The artist blows ink through a metal straw, resulting in burst flowers that look like water lilies, wind-blown dandelions, or viruses under a microscope. They are pretty. They have the generic softness of art you might see in a posh hotel room, or the end papers of a first edition. True, they display a fluent mastery of the medium that reflects a seriousness of purpose, even if you forget them days or minutes later.

Mr. Biden takes more risks with his canvas paintings, for better or for worse. Some satisfying abstractions blend from hundreds of solid colored blocks divided by black streams into card-like shapes. With a little more time, these abstractions could evolve into something like the art of Fred Tomaselli, which pushes abstraction into the cosmic and the psychedelic.

But then there are lead images of black birds, alive and dead. Horrible new-age portraits of a bald person, or maybe a bald alien. A self-portrait in marbled blues and purples that would fit well into the Burning Man festival. Signs and styles blend together quickly and arbitrarily: Mark Bradford-style accumulations of pigment, dense expanses of dots reminiscent of native Australian painting, a Californian swimming pool in homage to David Hockney (though Mr. Biden has human hands strange and distended rising from the water).

Mr. Biden has described his art as “literally keeping me sane,” and more than one painting features text here detailing his addiction and recovery. (“He began to write a new story,” the trippy self-portrait reads.) The painting of the bald figure bears a quote from the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. Oddly enough, Mr. Biden jotted down these quotes in a gold paint marker, the kind of craft store instrument scrapbookers loved. The gold marker returns throughout this show, depicting bare trees and mountain ridges, rounded Gaelic characters, and numerous snakes, some of which appear to have been stenciled. Snakes can have personal meaning, moulting and rebirth and all that; the symbology can also, more than anything, simply suggest being a guy.

It all seems rather haphazard, rather personal, rather naive. If the painter’s name ignited some observers still pleading the last election, the show reminded me less of Mr. Biden’s father than of a later inhabitant of Number One Observatory Circle: Karen pence, who used his time in the Vice President’s mansion to promote art therapy for the traumatized and convalescents. On one point, at least, Ms Pence and Mr Biden would surely agree: painting and drawing can do wonders for a person’s self-esteem and self-esteem. As for the public’s esteem, that may be another matter.

The Journey Home: A Solo Exhibition by Hunter Biden
Until November 15, Georges Bergès Gallery, 462 West Broadway, SoHo; 212-475-4524. Visits are by appointment; the gallery announced its intention to open to the public on November 11.

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