Before Banksy and Basquiat, There Was Shadowman

Premiering at Tribeca Film Festival, ‘Shadowman’ is a documentary about the incredible talent and struggles of pioneering street artist Richard Hambleton.

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Apr 21 2017, 3:22pm

A recent photo of Richard Hambleton by Hank O’Neal.

Long before Banksy's vivid and satirical street art, and even the graffiti work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, there was street artist Richard Hambleton. A classically trained painter, Hambleton was known throughout the 80s for works that played on Lower Manhattan's seedy and dangerous reputation, as well as its DIY energy. First came his chalk outlines (which also appeared in other cities), then came mysterious "shadow paintings" depicting a Shadowman lurking in the city's darker corridors. Hambleton, whose star fell just as Basquiat and Haring's reputations became immortalized and their artworks became investment properties, is now the subject of a documentary by filmmaker Oren Jacoby. Premiering today at the Tribeca Film Festival, Shadowman tracks the artist's various rises, falls, and resurrections, and coincides with the exhibition I Only Have Eyes For You, which is now on at Woodward Gallery until May 5th.

As Shadowman details, the Vancouver-born artist, working on a grant from the city, took his "murder mystery" chalk outline paintings on an American West Coast tour of Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He then worked his way across the United States, arriving in New York City in 1978, right as the Lower East Side's music and arts scenes were heating up. His murder mysterious, staged in TriBeCa and elsewhere, with its blood red paint splashed across white outlines, immediately unnerved everyone, including the NYPD. This brought Hambleton much media attention, and made him something of an art world star.

Standing Man. Photograph by Hank O'Neal.

Though he had a studio practice, Hambleton kept applying his "public art" to the streets with life-sized blue print posters of himself, titled, I Only Have Eyes For You, before tagging Lower East Side buildings with his Shadowman paintings. Eventually, Hambleton turned away from these minimalist figurative artworks to instead make his Beautiful Paintings, which included gigantic canvases with awe-inspiring ocean waves. After taking ecstasy throughout the 80s, Hambleton fell down the rabbit hole of heroin and crack addiction, becoming a recluse of sorts and also living homeless at various times. But he always had art, and he never stopped making it.

Much of this is outlined, with often uncomfortable detail, in interviews and even shown in Shadowman's footage. Jacoby's camera reveals a hunched over, wraithlike man suffering from years of addiction as well as skin cancer, which has sadly ravaged his face. This is quite jarring because, as photos and archival footage show, quite apart from his obvious artistic talent, Hambleton stood out for his beauty, as well as a soft, seductive voice.

Jacoby, a native New Yorker, first encountered Hambleton's work in 1980 and 1981 while crashing at a friend's loft in SoHo. The neighborhood was desolate and deserted, and in these empty streets he recalled encountering the bizarre shadow paintings. Shortly after, Jacoby saw some of Hambleton's murder mysteries, which startled and engaged him in a different way. But, he never knew these street artworks were created by Hambleton.

A shadow painting on 34th East 12th Street. Photograph by Hank O'Neal.

"I didn't know who he was until almost 30 years later when a friend, the photographer Hank O'Neal, brought me to Richard's studio and introduced me to him, and that was in 2009," says Jacoby, who started making the documentary soon after. It was a rare opportunity to be invited into Hambleton's world. "As soon as I met him I felt there was something unusual there. The last third of the film is Richard engaging with those two young art dealers—that was where I started. I was there when they came and started engaging with him."

"I felt incredibly uncomfortable and I knew that this interaction shows something really interesting about the art world: how art and commerce meet," he adds. "The compromises that a painter is called upon to make or just reckon with in navigating a career. And somehow that was all spilling out in front of me."

Richard Hambleton. Photograph by Ben Buchanan.

Though Jacoby never had sit-down interviews with Hambleton, he did film the artist in conversation with friends. He says that anyone who meets Hambleton can't help but be engaged by his charisma. Viewers see this in interviews with ex-girlfriends, friends, and roommates. It is even seen through Jacoby's film itself, which he uses to show Hambleton's dynamic mind and ever-evolving talent, as well as the restless energy that has propelled him across decades in New York City.

"The remarkable thing to me in making this film was how many people over the years were drawn to Richard not only by his art but because they engaged with him as a human being and felt empathy for his situation," says Jacoby. "Anyone who dealt with Richard was put through the ringer and had to do difficult things and jump through hoops to make something happen. And they would only do that if they had some deep feelings for the guy."

Oren Jacoby filming Richard Hambleton in 2010.

Though Hambleton is still alive, the film's ending presents something of a cliffhanger. Its 2016, and Hambleton, who one dealer had put up in the Trump SoHo Hotel, is living in a Chinatown hotel and suffering from poor health. His fights against skin cancer and addiction are taking their toll, but he soldiers on with his art. Not much has changed in 2017, but Jacoby says Hambleton is excited about Shadowman's Tribeca Film Festival premiere.

"Nothing has surprised me more in the whole course of the almost eight years of working on this, all of my interactions with Richard, all of the ups and downs, all of the challenges and difficulties in making the film, than the way he has responded in the last month with the film being finished and opening in Tribeca in his neighborhood," says Jacoby. "He has come back to life. There is this outpouring of work and he's doing a pop-up show in Hell's Kitchen where he will show a bunch of his work from the last year and a half."

"He's also talking about doing a street piece when the festival is over, which he hasn't done in years," Jacoby adds. "It's been so gratifying for me to see that it's been a positive thing for him as far as getting him another moment of recognition and of him feeling engaged and wanting to work."

Click here for more on Oren Jacoby's film work.

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