Documentary Review: ‘Shadowman’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

Mention street art nowadays and most will picture the enigmatic Banksy: a little girl with a heart-shaped balloon or a protester about to hurl a bouquet instead of a Molotov cocktail, painted on the side of a building. His art often has a subversive undercurrent yet it intends to inspire conversation, rather than fear. But in New York City in the 1980’s, when the street art movement had just begun with artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of his predecessors was forging a lucrative career with decidedly darker images.

Oren Jacoby’s new documentary Shadowman tells the story of Richard Hambleton, a formally-trained painter turned street artist who first came to the public’s attention in the late 70’s with his “Mass Murder” series that stretched across the United States and Canada. Using his friends as models, Hambleton would paint out chalk outlines of a fictitious victim, splattering the scene with carmine paint. Passerby were often unaware of the artistic nature of what they’d just walked over, looking for non-existent police tape or sidestepping eerily realistic pools of blood. In the 1980’s he gained notoriety for his “Shadowmen”, hulking outlines splashed on the walls of side streets and dark alleys, crude and rough-edged as only the most meticulously envisioned art can be. They gave the impression of urban predators ready to pounce and often gave pedestrians a start. In 1984 he painted several of these Shadowmen on the Berlin Wall and enjoyed international recognition for much of the decade. By all accounts his star was in its ascendancy.

The success would not last, though. What began as a retrospective on the emergence of an innovative new artist shifts into a woeful portrait of addition and those who enable its continuance. Despite his paintings selling in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, Hambleton bled cash. Drug abuse cost him a supportive girlfriend and eventually relegated him to semi-homelessness, living on the street or squatting in between charitable offers from his admirers. Their goodwill, however, often looks suspiciously like thinly concealed avarice. Collectors and gallery owners would put Hambleton up in apartments or luxury hotels, all expenses covered; in exchange, he agreed to provide new artwork for them at regular intervals. After a few months, these arrangements would inevitably fall apart.

Although these well-heeled benefactors fancy themselves “patrons” their benevolence does little to foster success. Hambleton no longer scrapes by, true, but he’s still an addict, now with access to large sums of money. Several of these patrons sit down for interviews in Shadowman. Many of them, when addressing the end of their financial involvement with Hambleton, bemoan how what they did was never enough. How he failed to produce the agreed-upon works, regardless of the support provided. He was, in short, beyond their help. But was he? Luxury suites and large checks are waved around like magic wands, yet no one even alludes to attempts at professional intervention. Perhaps Hambleton was a lost cause no matter what; by the time of his re-emergence in 2009, he had been struggling with addiction for nearly 30 years. Or perhaps, with the right support, he stood a fighting chance; with Hambleton’s passing last month, it’s a “what if?” left regrettably to the past.

Hambleton doesn’t lack self-awareness. His contemporaries Haring and Basquiat both passed away young. He seems resigned to his addiction and its consequences: “I was alive when I died,” he flatly tells the camera. His former girlfriend, Mette Madsen, posits that maybe the turmoil and the art are inextricably linked. To banish one would be to banish the other as well. Witnessing Hambleton’s slow deterioration, it’s left to the audience to decide whether the steep cost of genius is justified.

Opening in Theaters on December 1st in New York at the Quad Cinema & December 8th in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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