The ingenuity that saves Oren Jacoby’s documentary Shadowman from being a well-intentioned yet shallow puff piece is how it allows its audience to sink into the mythology of its subject before cruelly awakening them to its reality. The first half draws us into the imagined realm of Richard Hambleton, the pioneering New York City artist who helped found the street art movement alongside Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the late 70s and early 80s. He first gained public attention with his conceptual piece Image Mass Murder, where he would paint blood-smeared cadaver outlines used in police investigations all over the seedier parts of major metropolitan cities. Continuing his fascination with urban decay and darkness, he created an ongoing series of shadow portraits placed in inconspicuous locations such as rubbish-strewn alleyways and derelict dockyards. Whereas Basquiat and Haring were obsessed with having their art be seen in public places, Hambleton seemed to desire the opposite: to have as few people see his work as possible. An archetypical brooding, self-destructive artistic genius, Jacoby tracks his debilitating drug problems which led to him dropping out of the public eye at the height of his fame and becoming an international transient, wandering the globe while supporting himself via commissions. Some were purchased for thousands of dollars by famous museums. Others he traded for hot meals. By the time Jacoby rediscovers him in 2009, the man hadn’t had a show in 25 years and had allowed untreated skin cancer to chew away at his face until half his nose had collapsed in on itself. Yet still he created, yet still he painted, if not with paints than with his own blood.
But if the first half of the film asks Who Is Richard Hambleton, the second half resolutely answers A Self-Centered Bastard. Jacoby watches in muted horror as he repeatedly sabotages potential comebacks, lashing out at art critics and gallery owners who sincerely want to help him. When he’s commissioned to create a number of new paintings for a show, he defiantly throws paint all over the pieces when the financiers come by and admire them. A Russian millionaire offers Hambleton a deal: for one painting a month he’ll put him up in a suite in Trump Tower. Six months later, he’s evicted for wrecking the place. The man seems to be willing himself to die, yet he can’t. We get the sense that his artwork, while originally an expression of angst and inner fears, has become an expression of his insane contempt for a body that refuses to expire and a God that allows him to survive. Though Jacoby almost sabotages his whole film by betraying its devastating darkness for an upbeat montage of the man and his work at the very end, Shadowman is equal parts disturbing and engrossing; it’s a film grotesquely morbid yet beautiful, satisfying yet frustrating.
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