A documentary by Oren Jacoby. Rating unavailable
Besides Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, and Roy Arden, Vancouver produced another art star—but his trajectory was markedly different.
Richard Hambleton’s career was a total train wreck, tied into the drug-afflicted, remarkably self-destructive Lower East Side scene of 1980s New York City. In this fast-moving documentary by Oren Jacoby, you witness his crash in all its ugliness—including a messy final attempt to get back on track before his death late last year.
Hambleton, whose outsider-art celebrity rivalled that of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, goes from glittering gallery shows and spreads in People and Vogue to living in a blood-spattered crackhouse and hawking his paintings for junk within a matter of just a few years.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Bolstered by an incredible wealth of archival footage and interviews, Jacoby chronicles Hambleton’s rocketlike rise in New York City’s art world (which the Vancouver School of Art alumnus travelled to on a government grant in the late ’70s). Hambleton caught the zeitgeist of the then crime-plagued city with his sinister street art: fake white-chalked crime scenes with blood-red paint splashed on them and threatening black silhouettes that earned him the nickname Shadowman. (Banksy has cited him as an influence.)
Soon, the artist was putting those images on canvas, selling them to collectors, and becoming the talk of the town—a dapper dresser who always had several women on his arm. So where did it all go so terribly wrong?
Hambleton started painting massive sea- and landscapes instead of the splattery graffiti expressions his collectors so loved. Even in his later years, as two young collectors tried to get Hambleton to revive his career, he was difficult. Friends called it arrogance and pride.
But this is also a portrait of someone who simply lost himself to drugs. By the end, even though he could still execute the same gestural genius with his brushstrokes, Hambleton is shown in the film drawn and bent over like a 90-year-old, a bandage covering a cancerous lesion on his face—a wasted shadow of his former self.
It’s not easy to watch. But set to the likes of Talking Heads and Blondie, the documentary succeeds as an unglamorized ode to the uncompromising ’80s art scene in New York—and one talented man that it consumed.