The energy bounces off the walls. Some shadowmen are suspended mid-jump, others are wittingly posed. Details in black and white exude different moods than similar sinister figures drenched in vibrant color. A circular frenzy of horses and riders take the eye on a dizzying journey of the canvas.
Richard Hambleton: SHADOWMAN is a spirited exploration of the artist’s wide-ranging work from the 1980s through the late 2000s. The exhibition opens October 31 and is on view through November 17 at Chase Contemporary in New York’s Chelsea.
The solo exhibition traces the evolution of Hambleton’s eerie figurative series of shadowmen compositions, paired with his horse and rider, rodeo men, or Marlboro men paintings, which increasingly draw the attention of collectors.
Hambleton disliked being called the godfather of street art, and rocketed to notoriety when he relocated to the Lower East Side of New York in 1979, as his menacing silhouettes, or shadowmen, haunted the then-gritty neighbourhood.
Before dominating the New York street art scene alongside Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hambleton emerged between 1976 and 1978 by painting police chalk outlines around bodies of volunteers posed as homicide victims and adding red paint to create a realistic, visceral depiction of crime scenes throughout 15 major cities in the United States and his native Canada. The “image mass murder” scenes deliberately sought to shock passersby, in the same way, that his creepy, site-specific shadownmen were intended to rattle.
On view at Chase are enormous canvases that translate the mysterious life-sized street figures from the early 1980s into elegant and evocative paintings. The original images combined black and white splashed paint and brushstrokes coming to life on hundreds of buildings and other structures throughout New York City. The foreboding figures were often painted in alleyways and dark corners to elevate the emotional reaction.
Hambleton sprawled his shadowmen across cities such as Paris, London, and Rome. In 1984, he painted 17 shadowmen on the East side of the Berlin Wall, and returned a year later to disturb and adorn the West side.
The Chase exhibition includes some “beautiful paintings,” which present the silhouettes shadowed with bold colors such as red and purple to provoke a dissimilar response by employing what Hambleton described as a “different sensibility.”
One could admire Hambleton’s shift to canvas and paper without context, especially as the works are displayed at Chase. While he remained in the shadow of his peers during his lifetime, Hambleton stood out by focusing on site-specific conceptual works that spur immediate reaction and ongoing scrutiny.
Hambleton’s first solo exhibition opened in the Lower East Side in 1982, and two years later he was included in the Venice Biennale, where his work was featured again in 1988 and 2009.
Born June 23, 1952, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Hambleton died of cancer October 29, 2017, in New York. Sales of his work spiked after Shadowman, a film by director Oren Jacoby, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, 2017. The film chronicles his rise and fall, including his often-publicized drug addiction.
His work is included in the permanent collections of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and The Zellermeyer in Berlin; The Andy Warhol Museum; Austin Museum of Art; Milwaukee Art Museum; The New Museum of Contemporary Art; The Brooklyn Museum; The Queens Museum; and Harvard University.
Natasha Gural - Forbes