(2017) Documentary (Film Movement) Richard Hambleton, Paul DiRienzo, Richard Hell, Andy Valmorbida, Michael Carter, Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, Keegan Hamilton, Nimo Librizzi, Robert Hawkins, Bob Murphy, Rick Librizzi, Robin Cimbalest, Mette Hansen, John Woodward, Michaael Okolokulak, Carlo McCormick, Anne Hanavan, Kristine Woodward, Phoebe Hobah. Directed by Oren Jacoby
An old boxing adage is the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In some ways, that also applies to art. The underground art scene of the 1980s in New York City was dominated by three figures; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton. Only one of them would live beyond the age of thirty.
Hambleton made a name for himself with the Image Mass Murderer series in a variety of cities including his native Vancouver – chalk outlines of human figures spattered with red paint looking disquietingly like blood. While the local gendarmes were less than thrilled by the street art (this before it was even called street art) the art world did stand up and take notice. Hambleton ended up in New York City where he became famous for his Shadowman series; human figures painted in black in unexpected places designed to startle people as much as possible. These paintings popped up everywhere through New York which at the time was in the midst of severe decay and neglect. Hambleton – young, leonine handsome and self-assured – and Downtown were made for each other.
But like most things it didn’t last and the fame and ready availability of drugs got to Hambleton. He would drop out of sight for twenty years, resurfacing in 2009 when a pair of gallery owners named Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmorbida teamed up with Giorgio Armani to present an exhibition of his work. We see the difficulty in working with the obstinate Hambleton, by now beset by scoliosis and skin cancer, his face deformed and living one step away from the streets, almost obsessive compulsively painting over and over again, unwilling to finish his works.
During his time away from the spotlight, Hambleton lived in squalid squats and rat-infested storage facilities, using money he received for whatever work he could eke out for heroin. The ravages of the drug use and excess are readily apparent from viewing his more recent interviews. While those few friends who stood by him admit that he was victimized often by unscrupulous art dealers, he was also his own worst enemy and we can see that in his interactions, often passive-aggressive with the two art gallery owners trying to help him return to where they felt he deserved to be.
Hambleton took an interest in seascapes, painting amazing works of waves crashing on the shore which were patently out of favor at the time he painted them. As he wryly put it, “I could have made Shadowman bobble-head dolls and made a million dollars” and he isn’t far wrong. As Wall Street discovered Downtown, branding began to creep into the art world as insidiously as it did everything else. In retrospect Hambleton was a modern day Quixote, tilting at windmills that often savagely tilted right back.
In many ways it’s a heartbreaking viewing. The footage of Hambleton in the 80s and now are night and day; the degree of how far he had fallen pitifully obvious. For one so talented and so innovative, it’s hard to watch in a lot of ways but one can take comfort in that he lived essentially the way he chose to, even if those choices were bad ones. Not all of us get to say that.
REASONS TO GO: The artwork is thought-provoking and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit dry and occasionally too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as copious drug use and smoking and also some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hambleton passed away October 29, 2017 as a result of skin cancer he refused to have treated. He lived long enough to see the film’s debut at Tribeca.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving Vincent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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