Hunter Biden, a former lawyer and lobbyist, is now rediscovering himself as an artist.
In a New York Times profile, the currently unemployed 50-year-old opens up on his new leisure pursuit.
“For years I wouldn’t call myself an artist. Now I feel comfortable saying it,” Biden says, adding that painting is what “keeping [him] sane”.
He lives with his pregnant wife Melissa Cohen in a Los Angeles home that rents for $12,000 a month.
He paints psychedelic pictures by blowing multi-coloured alcohol ink on Japanese Yupo paper with a metal straw; he uses a wok brush to remove dried ink.
A New York Times reporter described the paintings, some of which evoke flowers and algae from biology books, as “twisting faces and organs, warms yellows to melancholy blues and angry reds.” In Melissa’s words, her husband’s art is something “very abstract, sometimes very dark” that “draws a lot from nature”.
Biden doesn’t have a background in arts but claims to have sketched on and off since childhood. He has taken up painting more seriously recently as self-therapy.
“The one thing I have left is my art. It’s the one thing they can’t take away from me or conflate with anything else,” he says. “It keeps me away from people and places where I shouldn’t be.”
What do critics make of his work?
Some art critics have not accepted Biden’s foray into the art world well. New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz unceremoniously described his paintings as “Generic Post Zombie Formalism illustration”.
He gave a number of tips: “Lose the big signature at once; forget the Kusama dots altogether; experiment with the surface and color and tools. Really consider the whole-page as a space and not make everything derivative all-over composition. The background doesn’t always have to be white, you big baby.”
Art critic Scott Indrisek, former editor-in-chief of Modern Painters magazine, told Artnet: “Hunter’s paintings have a kind of vaguely scientific, vaguely psychedelic vibe that reminds me of Fred Tomaselli—if Fred Tomaselli started making art for dermatologists’ waiting rooms.”
“But then again, the process here seems more important than the finished product. I guess it’s important that wounded men of a certain age and privileged background have the opportunity to find themselves creatively… it’s just too bad that everyone else is expected to pay attention.”
Author and critic Ben Davis said: “As digital images, at least, they are pleasing. It’s hard to say what they look like without seeing how the actual paper holds the ink. You can’t really judge it from your desktop.”
Painting as self-therapy
Biden’s mother and one-year-old sister were killed in a car crash in 1972; Hunter, then 2, and his elder brother Beau, then 3, were present in the car but survived the accident. Hunter had a history of alcohol and drug problems, which grew worse when Beau died in 2015 of brain cancer.
Biden had become addicted to crack and got enrolled in rehabs several times. He recalls: “I went through a really long period of addiction and I was at a point where I didn’t read, write, think. I don’t do things halfway. That can be a problem.”
This past fall, he got embroiled in the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump; the US President was accused by the Democrats of pushing for the opening of an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine.
Hunter sat on the board of a major Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, between April 2014 and April 2019. He joined the company when his father, then US Vice President, was overseeing the Obama administration’s relations with the corruption-plagued country.
Although Burisma was the subject of multiple corruption investigations and Joe Biden bragged publicly about playing a role in ousting Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Hunter had never been accused of corruption himself.
He denied doing anything improper when occupying a seat on Burisma’s board, but admitted having “poor judgment” when deciding to join the firm.
Also in the fall, Hunter stepped down from the board of directors of a Chinese-backed private equity company; he pledged to halt all work with foreign-owned companies should his father get elected President.