Oren Jacoby’s Tribeca documentary Shadowman looks at the vibrant New York street art scene through the life and work of graffiti artist Richard Hambleton. Along with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Hambleton became representative of the gritty energy of emerging street art as he painted over the streets of the Lower East Side with his famous “Shadowman” paintings. The stark, ghost-like paintings that appeared on walls and buildings around New York City were calculated to produce the maximum effect on the viewer, interacting with and informing on the urban landscape. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Hambleton survived the epidemics of disease and drugs that decimated the scene, instead vanishing suddenly at the apex of his fame. Through talking head interviews, copious archival footage, and contemporary chronicles, Shadowman paints itself through the 1980s and into the current period, following Hambleton’s strange and meandering path around (and on) the Manhattan streets.
Shadowman presents itself as a window into the gritty, wild, energetic art scene of the Lower East Side, as well as a more personal look into the enigmatic nature of Hambleton himself. Though his studio art was valued at a higher rate than Basquiat’s, Hambleton is not the household name of his contemporary. Some of this is a result of the latter’s personality: Arrogant and self-destructive, Hambleton falls out the bottom of the scene as he increasingly refuses to engage in the branding and sale of himself as a commodity. His drug addiction and connected problems further alienate him from those who try to help him when he stops being dependable. He’s used by friends, who take advantage both of his drug addiction and his desperation; he makes agreements with gallery owners and enthusiasts only to renege on them for no clear reason.
What Hambleton—and, by extension, Shadowman—grapples with is the notion of public art when it becomes mainstream, and the ever-present dichotomy of artists needing to survive while at the same time avoiding selling out to a market. By any stretch, Haring and Basquiat sold out, choosing to play the art world game, branding their work for mass consumption. Hambleton didn’t, moving from his Shadowman paintings to an obsession with the Marlboro Man in his studio art, and finally to the “beautiful paintings” that he produced as he became more involved with drugs and eventual homelessness. Owners of Hambleton paintings recall being asked by gallery owners if “Richard is still alive,” knowing that his art will increase in value the moment he dies.
As the film proceeds, Hambleton becomes more, not less, enigmatic. He’s “rediscovered” by several gallery owners and patrons in quick succession, but he’s erratic, unwilling to declare pieces finished despite constant deadlines. He’s found living on the street, in abandoned gas stations, or in flophouses with prostitutes and drug dealers, trading paintings for a meal or drug money. When he’s rediscovered yet again, he’s sick with skin cancer (for which he refuses to get treatment), his back twisted by scoliosis, his body and mind damaged by years of drug abuse. He’s finally offered the opportunity to open his own show, and to once again make enough money to get himself out of the vicious cycle he’s lived in since the mid-eighties. But Hambleton continues to resist commodification, even when it’s in his own best interests. Yet his rejection of commodification isn’t particularly represented as political—it’s rather his inability to do anything except produce art, even to the detriment of his body. He produces art because he must.
Simultaneously tragic and honorable is Hambleton and his total unwillingness to compromise. It would be easy to categorize him as the artist fallen low, or to try to paint his arc into a redemption narrative. But what Shadowman hammers home, intentionally or not, is that life does not fit into comfortable narratives, and that even artists might not fully understand, or be able to articulate, the reasons behind their work. Like his surprising, frightening shadows, now no doubt painted over and subsumed beneath gentrification, Hambleton remains. As the film closes, he becomes a living embodiment of the old New York, a shadow, a reminder of the city’s violent, beautiful, and tragic past, and the people who lived it. There’s something deeply artistic about that.
Shadowman is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.