Film Review: Shadowman

Dramatic documentary examining the rollercoaster career of pioneering 1980s street artist Richard Hambleton, who shifted back and forth from art-world star to homeless junkie.
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An incredibly dramatic documentary, award-winning filmmaker Oren Jacoby’s Shadowman is a candid portrait of visual artist Richard Hambleton, who, along with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, is commonly credited with initiating the street art movement in the 1980s. The film draws its title from the hundreds of shadow paintings Hambleton made on the walls of downtown Manhattan. Dark, looming silhouettes of menacing, life-size figures, they seemed to have sprung up mysteriously, and often frightened viewers who would come upon them by surprise when turning a corner or heading down an alley on the then-dangerous streets of the early-’80s Lower East Side.

A Vancouver-born, formally trained fine artist, Hambleton became an ’80s-art-world star, then disappeared into a life of drugs, squalor and homelessness for about 20 years. When two enterprising young art dealers—Andy Valmorbida and Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld—reintroduced Hambleton’s work to collectors and resuscitated his career in 2009, it was only a short while before the artist, battling both skin cancer and drug addiction, once again withdrew, returning to his old, alienating habits. Jacoby’s film follows the fascinating trajectories of Hambleton’s rises and falls, stressing that throughout his life Hambleton—though controlled by his drug habit—never stopped painting, and produced work that was consistently brilliant, exhilarating and original.

Hambleton died on October 29 of this year, after the completion of the documentary, which ultimately becomes a demonstration of how the stardom of an extraordinary artist can be eclipsed by run-of-the-mill junkie behavior. Jacoby’s objective examination of his subject—through rare archival footage and home movies complemented by insightful interviews in which we hear about Hambleton from art critics, dealers, collectors, friends and fellow artists—makes for a complicated, sympathetic yet sometimes unflattering picture of not only Hambleton but also the whole contemporary art scene.

From the get-go we witness what an amazingly talented artist Hambleton was, as the documentary opens with footage of him painting one of his shadow figures in 1981. He paints with astonishing speed, completing the spooky form in a matter of seconds, then surreptitiously collecting his materials and scurrying away. Lots of screen time is devoted to showcasing Hambleton’s artwork and letting him talk about it, both in archival clips and in the abundance of footage Jacoby shot of Hambleton over the last eight years. Sporting a Band-Aid covering the half of his nose and part of his face devoured by the cancer, the artist comes across as unexpectedly soft-spoken and gentle, despite the heated battles he is shown to have with Valmorbida and Roitfeld over his refusal to part with works he was commissioned to make, preferring to perpetually deem them unfinished. Conflicting views are expressed concerning Hambleton’s deep distrust of art dealers, who he claims cheated him, and we are left to come to our own conclusions about his stormy relationship with the commercial art world that propelled him to fame when acquiring street art became fashionable during the bull-market 1980s. With its electrifying rock score by Joel Goodman and its flashy cinematography by Jacoby, Bob Richman and Tom Hurwitz, the documentary thrillingly conjures the glamour of that cultural scene, which Hambleton both drew support from and fled.

Spotlighting the mysteries evoked by this great contemporary artist—a hero to some, who applaud his refusal to let the art market influence his work—the film leaves us pondering how it was that Hambleton created his most beautiful paintings during the most troubled times of his life. A worthy, age-old question, for sure.

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