The world seems to have fallen in love with the 1980s art scene again. Uniqlo has a line of clothes inspired by Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. A skull painting by Jean Michel-Basquiat sold at auction this week for over $110 million. However one of their contemporaries has been long forgotten. ??In a new documentary by Oren Jacoby, Shadowman explores the life of Richard Hambleton, one of the most celebrated artists of the 1980s and a founder of the early street art movement. Like Basquiat, Haring and many others of the time, Hambleton made a name for himself as an innovative street artist painting shadowy figures in the dark alleys of the Lower East Side or chalk outlines of bodies on sidewalks. His work took advantage of people’s fear of city violence and the darkness, often terrifying the passersby who encounter his work. Hambleton himself refused to characterize his works of unsanctioned street art as graffiti. He was a street artist, viewing what he did superior to the tags popping up on New York’s subways. His work triggered discussions around the difference unsanctioned street art vs graffiti. Is it the idea behind it? The skill it requires? Or does it merely it depend on the status of the person painting it?
But while so many street artists from the 1980s have died, Hambleton simply died of obscurity. His work, an early foray into public art, launched him into stardom, making him a darling of NYC’s art scene, a favorite of everyone from gallerists to Wall Street art collectors. Shadowman uses an impressive amount of archival footage, press clippings and interviews with famous figures to illustrate Hambleton’s popularity at the time. However the documentary at times puts an uncomfortable emphasis on validating Hambleton’s work by repeatedly comparing his popularity to Basquiat, Haring and Warhol instead of letting his art speak for itself. Shadowman attempts to justify why Hambleton wasn’t canonized alongside his other contemporaries who have since passed away.
Where Warhol and Haring embraced the spotlight, Hambleton shrank away from it. He grew a distaste for the gallery scene and fell into a cycle of drug use that eventually ended his career and many of his relationships. In not too long, his drug use left him destitute homeless on the Lower East Side. He became so obscure that most had assumed he had died as all the other greats of the era.
Twenty years later after his disappearance from the art world, Shadowman chronicles multiple attempts by different gallery owners and friends to help him and resurrect his art career despite the instability created by his drug usage. After discovering he was living in his dark narrow studio in the Lower East Side, one patron offered him free residence at a Trump hotel in exchange for paintings, until the hotel threw him out for the mess he created. Other gallerist attempted to provide more stable support and regularly check up on his work, only to find he'd been destroying works he felt weren't perfect enough. Hambleton reveals himself to be a man given so many opportunities to redeem himself in the public eye, but unable to because of his own destructive personality and inability to acknowledge the interests of others.
Shadowman beautifully reignites interest in a man who honestly could care less about whether you're interested in him. Hambleton is fueled by a sole interest in painting and stands unconcerned of all else. The artist’s indifference to the cameras, to the filmmakers, and really to anybody, provides an intimate and raw look at his work without ever directly interviewing him. Troubled and unstable, he struggles against self destructive ego and insecurity, prioritizing his paintings over everything else, including friends, money and even himself.
Today Hambleton is back to where he began, painting in the Lower East Side, still painting with the same fervor and dedication had 50 years prior, but dying from skin cancer and addiction, missing part of his nose. Refusing to accept medical treatment, Hambleton is man both dying inside and out, but continually given life by his art, yet also has become his own work. Richard Hambleton is a shadow of the Lower East Side, a ghost of a lost era, still wandering the same streets in the darkness.