There’s a familiar narrative about the self-destructive artist, or maybe it’s one that we want to see borne out in real life and in narratives about artists as characters. The brilliant artist is ignored but persists in their craft, achieves some fame which leads to drugs and precipitous decline, and is rediscovered while in dire straits. The rediscovery leads to steady patronage, critical and public reconsideration of the work, and some level of fame, which caps the whole arc of an aesthetic life with triumphant redemption.
But that’s just a story. The documentary Shadowman has a little bit of that arc people want, but the lives of artists are far more complicated. They’re also quite unfortunate. Such immense creativity is often paired (even exceeded) by a penchant for self-destruction. The film’s subject is artist Richard Hambleton, a contemporary of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and a forefather for street artists like Banksy. The movie is about his second chances and his many more screw ups.
Director: Oren Jacoby
Release Date: TBD
Hambleton’s best known works were his fake murder outlines and his black shadow figures, each preying on fears of violence and urban decay that were endemic during the 1970s and early 1980s. Director Oren Jacoby uses the sinister nature of Hambleton’s street art to explore the rough, dangerous art/punk scene of New York City, a creative explosion amid the junk heaps and rubble. Hambleton, seen in old footage, conceals a bucket of paint in his coat as he climbs atop a dumpster and quickly brushes out a shadowy murderer before skulking away. There’s a Television guitar riff that comes up a fair amount in the film–it’s either “Glory” or a song that sounds a lot like it–which notes the glory days of that particular art/music scene while dismantling some of the romance that surrounds it.
Then again, “dismantling” might be the wrong word. The legend and the bent reality can co-exist, much like Hambleton the artist and Hambleton the man. As we see him age and somehow survive through poverty and heroin and a life in freefall, the man is a mix of aesthetic hero and selfish junkie prick. Whether they’re art dealers, old girlfriends, or fellow artists, the people interviewed in Shadowman care about Hambleton and his art, though there’s a palpable sense of betrayal in their voice. The man can make some exquisite art–the change in his aesthetic at his lowest point is remarkable–but he’s just as good at ruining friendships and his own health.
At one point in Shadowman, they bring up the importance of death in an artist’s life. Death is where the big bucks are, and the same goes for apotheosis. One art dealer says people ask her if Richard Hambleton is still alive, not out of concern but because the price of his art will skyrocket once he kicks the bucket. In a heroic narrative about Richard Hambleton, he’d still be alive just to piss those people off like he’s pissed off everyone else in his life. In the real world, though, he’s alive only somehow and just because.