Richard Hambleton, also known as “the Shadowman” is a Canadian born conceptual artist predominantly known for his unnerving street art which emerged in downtown NYC in the 1980’s. “I paint the town black” he stated in an interview in 1984 to People magazine, while discussing his eerie portraits, “They could represent watchmen or danger or the shadows of a human body after a nuclear holocaust or even my own shadow.”
He worked alongside his contemporaries, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, often challenging the law but nevertheless making his indelible mark on the city. Hambleton created his first notable piece with his “Image Mass Murder” works (1976-1978), which consisted of an unsettling series of police chalk outlines of victims bodies and a red splatter of ‘blood’ over different locations on the body in 15 major cities across the United States and Canada. The series was mistaken by most for real crime scenes and became the precursor to some later equally disturbing works which really defined Hambleton’s presence in the art world.
In the early 1980’s, Hambleton emerged with his “Shadowman” paintings, each painting resembled a life-size silhouette of a person. These spectral paintings were brushed in black onto the sides of buildings scattered around NYC and were thought to be carefully selected for maximum shock value on unsuspecting pedestrians. He expanded these paintings, eventually reaching cities such as London, Paris and Rome. Hambleton even painted 17 life-sized figures on the east side of the Berlin Wall, he then returned later to continue painting on the west side of the wall. It was from this point on that Hambleton’s identity moved onwards from the artist who ran away from the police with a paint bucket in hand. His new identity as “Shadowman” was solidified, and would continue through his career.
Hambleton moved from street art gradually working his shadowman portraits onto canvas and paper which fueled both substantial international recognition and a lucrative business. However, the peak of his career was short-lived as he battled a harrowing drug addiction, mostly to heroin which later led to numerous evictions of both his home and studio spaces. Hambleton was always on the cusp of homelessness. He was quickly impoverished again, another young artist in downtown Manhattan who could be found trading works for a hot meal or a place to stay but this was far from the last of his steps towards notoriety.
His work evolved in numerous directions, from his initial dark street art period to works on paper to a colourful period of seascapes and landscapes which he titled “Beautiful”. He used gold and silver varnishes for these later stating that they were “about love” and ultimately mentioning that the drastic change was a rebellion from all the figurative works which were taking over galleries in the mid 80’s. By 1988 he was included in the Venice Bienniale twice.
By the early 1990’s Hambleton spiraled downwards as his peers passed away, he was diagnosed with skin cancer and he withdrew from art feeling negative about gallery culture and completely absorbed by opiates. He made several comebacks as public interest in his work was at an all time high. His fame peaked once again in 2009 with a 40 year retrospective of his work in collaboration with Giorgio Armani which held 35 works of his art as a previous solo exhibition in 2007 sold out. In 2010 an annual AIDS charity dinner auctioned 2 of his works for a combined value of $920,000 with all money raised for charity.
Distassi Art Team