Oren Jacoby’s Shadowman — which premieres today at the Tribeca Film Festival — reheats the tropes of documentaries about art in 1980s New York City (the crack epidemic, AIDS, the uptown/downtown clash, and more), but its subject makes it noteworthy. Richard Hambleton was a peer of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring who, despite extensive media coverage at the time, has been largely forgotten. Due to his own addictions and hostile attitude, he slid into an obscurity that largely persists to this day, aside from the occasional spurt interest in his work. Jacoby presents a fine argument for bolstering Hambleton’s place in the canon of the era.
Shadowman is the rare documentary where “talking heads” can be used to describe both the soundtrack — which features “Psycho Killer” from David Byrne and company — as well as the primary storytelling technique. Artists, poets, collectors, dealers, and assorted denizens of the Lower East Side scene sound off on Hambleton’s life and legacy. In particular, the perspective of ex-girlfriend and fellow artist Mette Madsen humanizes this enigmatic figure. Madsen is one of the only interviewers who can (or is willing to) vouch that Hambleton at one point was not the paranoid figure he presents in more contemporary accounts. Many of the other interviews focus on his difficult personality and the havoc addiction wrecked on his life. All of the interviewees, though, attest to his talent.
Archival footage supplements these interviews, and Hambleton’s story is surprisingly well-documented for an artist so far from being a household name. The film’s opening shot, taken from 1981 archival footage, features Hambleton painting one of his famous shadowmen — dark, leaning figures applied to urban walls with a simple paint brush and black paint. Later, we see Hambleton climbing onto a ledge and painting a shadowman while an off-camera helper points a shaky spotlight. The artist claims that great planning goes into each figure, and he paints with the precise speed of someone who has given serious thought to what he is doing.
His earlier series, Mass Murder, is also explored via archival footage. Between 1976 and 1979, Hambleton (who was born in Vancouver) traveled to 15 cities around the United States and Canada placing the chalk outlines and (fake) blood of a murder scene on sidewalks. We see one in handheld video that trembles as the cameraperson circles the outline; observers at the time likewise trembled out of fear. Jacoby includes interviews with artists who saw the outlines and were terrified that they were witnessing the aftermath of a killing. “I created a murder scene which was experienced by the public as a murder,” Hambleton says years later, his cavalier tone betraying an indifference toward his audience and fellow humans that borders on malevolence.
Just as Hambleton started to gain popularity and acclaim in the 1980s with his street art, he began painting landscapes on canvases, losing the interest of many fans and patrons. The landscapes themselves were far from traditional, blurrily rendered in many tones of one color at enormous scales. But as Hambleton’s work became less popular, his quality of life plummeted. His use of heroin, crack, ecstasy, and other drugs left him living in a Lower East Side slum with a girlfriend and a prostitute in the early ‘90s. A camera crew follows the artist during this period of his life as he navigates the dilapidated hallways of his building and into the mess where he lives. Access to this footage is key to telling Hambleton’s story, as it is the missing link between the sexy, debonair artist of the 1980s and the jittery homeless man whose back is destroyed by scoliosis and whose face deteriorates from skin cancer. His body in these shots contains traces of his earlier life while presaging the kind of body horror that would give David Cronenberg pause.
The film’s ending rings false by too obviously attempting to put a positive spin on Hambleton’s narrative. Despite the fact that by the film’s end he is evicted from a temporary residence in the Trump SoHo and forced to downgrade to a significantly less ostentatious hotel in Chinatown, upbeat music plays as interviewees praise Hambleton for his dedication to the work. Having observed the shifting fortunes of this mercurial individual makes the cheery assessments of the situation seem disconnected from reality. The closing credits list Andy Valmorbida — an art dealer who helped revive Hambleton’s career in 2009 and is featured prominently in interviews — as an executive producer. In light of his business relationship with Hambleton, it’s difficult to consider a documentary made with his influence in any way objective. While the film might make us question the veracity of the story it tells, Shadowman is most intriguing as a record of Hambleton’s life that will raise awareness of his work while offering yet another cautionary tale about the meteoric rises and falls of artists.