Hunter Biden Is Painting His Truth

This is where Hunter Biden keeps the light, up here, many minutes up the turns of a hill outside of Los Angeles, behind gates and past Secret Service, through the white, open house he is renting with his wife and young son away from everything and everyone. It’s on the floor of the garage where he spends most hours of most days, hunched over the hundreds of paintings he’s created, leaving his palms and fingernails and jeans and Chelsea boots and the silver bracelets up his wrists stained with blues and reds and yellows and greens. For the last few days, he’s set his attention on a 26-foot piece of Japanese Yupo paper, a nonabsorbent synthetic that behaves more like a plastic than a paper or a canvas. He usually starts by tinkering with the colors, in this case, an almost DayGlo orange and yellow so bright they could exist only in a sunrise at a rave. He uses alcohol ink—a strange medium, he jokes, for a recovering addict who has publicly documented his struggles with drugs and alcohol, both by choice and because of a near-daily onslaught by his dad’s opponents and the right-wing media. But he chose the alcohol ink because he can forever manipulate it. He could change the whole thing right now if he wanted to. He could wash it away with more alcohol ink, and then once he was done, he could wash that away too. For this painting, though, he let the ink develop and layered more on top. This makes for hours of repetition, standing over the paper like Jackson Pollock to keep the ink from running and because it gives him a different perspective than if he were to hang something vertically. Sometimes he pours the ink directly on the paper, then uses sponge brushes to mix it around. Other times he sprays it or manipulates it by blowing through a straw.

Against the concrete floor, next to the president’s son, the painting glows. “Almost all great art, and I’m not saying my art is great, though it’s great to me, comes from tension,” he says, crossing his arms over the work at his feet. “It comes from a kind of innate anxiety that you need to express, and it’s never suppression for me anymore. It’s not therapeutic in the sense that I’m not thinking about it, or that it’s a way to run away from it. It’s a way to jump into it. The gift that they have given me,” he says, referring to the right-wingers obsessed with him, “is their constant pursuit. It’s kept me moving. It’s a need to express myself. It’s like that tension that we need to be as creative and expressive as you possibly can, to pour yourself into it. I mean, what an incredible gift.”

Hunter sees his work as creating a universal image that can look like something you see under a microscope, or from a satellite millions of light-years away, not unlike the way he himself is watched. He has been examined and scrutinized for what feels like forever, in photos as a grieving child, on television screens with his dad at swearing-in ceremonies, and on tabloid front pages in the throes of his addiction. There have been hearings on Capitol Hill, and his name has fluttered out of the White House, coming from its former and current occupants, if in wildly different tones. You can all probably recite his misfortunes and grief and mistakes by heart, because they’ve been relentlessly splashed, publicly lived, and, for the most part, pretty radically addressed by Hunter himself over the last year: There was his board seat at Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company owned by an oligarch mired in charges of corruption, and his investment in a private-equity firm linked to the Chinese government; his addiction and his relationships after his divorce from his first wife; the alleged stolen laptop that Rudy Giuliani quite literally melted down over. Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial centered around whether the then president abused his powers by pressuring the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on the youngest Biden son to saddle and sideline Joe Biden’s campaign. Hunter Biden recounted it all, in his own words and on his own terms, in a memoir released this past spring, less than three months after his father took office. And now some of it, intentionally or otherwise, is showing up in his art, which he recently displayed publicly for the first time.

It is very easy to imagine a scenario in which Hunter did not write that book and did not publish it so early into his father’s administration. Same, too, with showing his art. Certainly, it would have shaved down both the number of questions the White House press secretary gets about conflicts of interest and the volume of New York Post front pages with his photo splashed across them. But there is no such thing as a private Biden, not in 2021, anyway, but probably not ever in modern political times. There is surely no version in which Hunter Biden would be able to or want to slink away into the hills. So here he is, out loud, writing the story, painting the paintings, making a choice day in and day out not to wash it all away with alcohol ink.

Georges Bergès, the gallerist who put on Hunter Biden’s show, titled “The Journey Home,” in New York and Los Angeles, had to hire a team of private security after he received death threats and his gallery was vandalized over the summer. “It is crazier than I ever could have imagined,” he told me. “Everyone has lost their minds.”

If it’s not threats, it’s the paparazzi trailing Hunter on the way to the galleries, like they did Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan coming out of a nightclub in the early 2000s. In October, when he went to New York for his show’s opening at a two-story space in SoHo, there they were, waiting outside the gallery, all day and most of the night. They waited outside of his hotel too. (He had seen Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Schumer, and Emily Blunt at the hotel having lunch and assumed the paparazzi were there for them, but the trio left without fanfare, while the photogs were still waiting for him and shouting questions about the laptop when he left to get coffee with his daughter and son later in the day.)

Bergès snuck in some of his big-name collectors and art-world friends who wanted to view the exhibit in New York—but not be photographed—after dark, sending his staff home and keeping the lights dim so the shutterbugs would go home. He wouldn’t name names. “If I say who, all of a sudden the right-wing press is going to run with it, and I would be doing these people a disservice,” he told me.

People showed up regardless, privately and otherwise. At the beginning of October, around 200 people showed proof of vaccination to enter Milk Studios in L.A. for the show, including the city’s mayor and President Biden’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti, Moby, former Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Shepard Fairey, the artist best known for his iconic “Hope” posters used by the Obama campaign. About 95% of the people in the room were people he knew, Hunter told me that night. A hundred percent of them were people who had one degree of separation from him. Many of them had the last name Biden, including his daughters and sister Ashley and lots of aunts and uncles and cousins. Through the crowds, the waiters passed trays of Champagne and sushi, as a videographer friend gathered B-roll and a violinist played in front of projected images of his process and the art in progress.

The artwork itself was saturated with color: Malibu blues, rich rust, aquas and greens, and a common thread of gold leaf throughout. In a review of his paintings for Whitehot, well-known critic Donald Kuspit wrote that “Biden plays the keyboard of colors as deftly as [Kandinsky] does, however different his abstract music, for it has a more urgent sense of purpose.” Hunter says he was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s lectures, in which the famed professor talked about sharing a common mythology, with symbols repeating themselves across civilizations, across times, across religions. Which is why, even though there were different kinds of work in the show—from more abstract paintings laid over photographs he took around Los Angeles to works that featured thousands of meticulously painted dots or blocks of solid color—you could see a repetition of certain symbols: snakes, birds, a solo male silhouette. Some pieces quoted philosophers—not surprising, given that, on most days that he paints in the garage, Hunter listens to philosophy podcasts. Fairey, the artist, told me after the show that the works were “graphic and painterly at the same time,” and that they were really solid, especially for someone who was earlier in their career: “There are plenty of artists that have been making work for decades whose work I like less than what I saw at Hunter Biden’s show.” Even The New York Post managed to compliment him. The New York Times was not cruel. “They have the generic smoothness of the art you might see in a posh hotel room, or the end papers of a first edition,” a review of the New York show read. “Certainly they display a command of the fluid medium that reflects a seriousness of purpose, even if you forget them days or minutes later.”

In the way the works were painted and the way they were hung, they appeared as though they were backlit even though they were not. They looked aglow from within. Hunter, in a denim button-down and jeans, at the center of it all, did too. Everyone there—his daughters, his friends—kept asking him if he was nervous leading up to the event; they waited for a panic that never came. “Everybody I know, when they have some sort of public performance, especially if there’s, like, a lot of attention being paid to it, panics,” the singer Moby told me after the event. He and Hunter have been close friends for years. “The number of times I’ve gone with friends of mine who are painters to openings, and before the show they’re gobbling Xanax and beta-blockers and doing shots of vodka just to keep the anxiety from making their brain melt. And so I walked in and I assumed, like, Uh-oh, Hunter’s going to be a nervous wreck. So I walked up to him, asking, ‘Are you okay?’ But he was so calm. The work has a lightness to it, a sweetness to it. So did he. He’s the only artist I know who on his opening night actually seems happy.”

pevita pearce

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