A journey from darkness to light and then into a twilight world, the documentary “Shadowman” unveils just how helter-skelter artist Richard Hambleton’s life proved to be until he died two months ago, at 65. An ’80s fixture alongside Basquiat and Keith Haring, the Canadian-born painter made his name with prankish, under-cover-of-night forays into unlit urban corners to create red-splattered pavement outlines à la crime scenes, and inky black, lurking graffiti figures on walls – a branding that earned him the “Shadowman” sobriquet. (Banksy cites Hambleton’s street art as inspiration.)
But drugs and an aversion to the Wall Street-ification of art and gallery success sent him into hiding, then homelessness, though he never stopped working — shifting to foreboding landscapes that reflected his turbulent mind — because it usually helped pay for the next hit or meal or tatty shelter. Oren Jacoby’s fizzy, interview-laden love letter first catches up with Hambleton in 2009 when two young, connected tastemakers seek to revive his popularity, commissioning new work that eventually galvanizes some hotly covered New York shows. But it’s Hambleton’s ever-present demons — addiction, bad health and a mercurial attitude toward patrons — that make it hard to label this particular comeback any kind of late-in-life victory.
In fact, “Shadowman” is at its unsettling, want-to-look-away best when tiptoeing around the question of what makes for success regarding artists like Hambleton: the hoopla that keeps the work in circulation, or the mysterious inner pilot light that keeps a self-destructive talent going?
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood