Danny Peary Talks To… ‘Shadowman’ Director-Producer Oren Jacoby
MAY 24, 2017 BY DANNY PEARY
I’ve always appreciated the rare films (docs and narratives) about artists (painters, musicians, writers) that reveal what’s going on in their heads as they engage in their unique processes. That’s why I found Shadowman to be one of the most compelling documentaries at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. Acclaimed stage and screen director Oren Jacoby (My Italian Secret played at 2014’s Hamptons International Film Festival) somehow gets us to understand legendary street artist Richard Hambleton, one of the most enigmatic artists of all.
From Jacoby’s director’s statement:
“Shadowman is a film about the creative life of a brilliant painter who is, at heart, a loner, someone who struggles with addiction and pushes people away, but never stops making art. Sometimes the experience of following Richard with a camera gave me a sense of what it must have been like to see Van Gogh in his fateful, final years as he was consumed by madness, addiction, and his last burst of artistic passion.”
Jacoby started filming Hambleton in 2009, when he was being unearthed by two young art dealers and was about to mount an extraordinary comeback thanks to a series of one-man shows in New York City sponsored by Giorgio Amani. He writes that he expected to “skip over Richard’s ‘lost years.’ But then my team discovered home movies shot twenty years ago by artist and photographer Clayton Patterson that show Richard in the junkie house where he was living with a prostitute and several other people—and in the midst of squalor, painting. Eventually, we found even earlier footage from 1981 of Richard—at night—surreptitiously painting the first of the shadows on the walls of lower Manhattan, and creating his first celebrated work on canvas.” The images are as astonishing as they sound.
The Shadowman trailer:
I had the following conversation with Oren Jacoby about his exceptional documentary and its subject at his publicists’ New York office during the Tribeca Film Festival.
Danny Peary: When you originally decided to film Richard Hambleton, a somewhat reclusive artist, what was your intention?
Oren Jacoby: To show the art. I saw the art. I was given a little preview of the interest surrounding his doing a jumpstart for his career. My friend Hank O’Neal [one of Shadowman’s three co-producers] had photographed Richard’s street art back in the 80s and had reconnected with him. Over a couple of days, they were showing some of Richard’s paintings and Hank’s photographs in a rented warehouse in Tribeca. I saw the work and was blown away. Hank said, “Maybe you could do a movie.” I said, “I love this art, so let’s try.” So I got a camera and got my colleague Elgin Smith [Shadoman’s associate producer] and he came down, and together we did all kinds of shots, just the empty space with the art. There was a freight cart there that we used as a dolly to do some moves on the paintings—there was a contraption that changed light bulbs at the top of the warehouse that we used for crane shots. I just fell in love with the stuff. I’m not usually like that with contemporary art, but it just spoke to me. Also it reminded me of when I saw Richard’s street art back in the 80s.
DP: New York City circa 1980 is such a part of your film. Were you there at the time?
OJ: Yes. I was born and grew up in New York City and went to Friends Seminary. I left to go to Brown, returned for a few years, went to grad school at Yale, and then I came back and pretty much have lived here ever since. Maybe I’m just an old geezer romanticizing about my youth, but back then this city was a place where young people and artists could afford to come and to find themselves. They could succeed or they could fail and just knock around with other artists to stimulate them. So much of it has been monetized that whatever people are searching for today is different from what we were searching for back then. I’m sure there are some kids who are searching for what Richard did, but Manhattan is certainly a harder place to do that now. When I came back to the city after college and saw Richard’s giant shadow paintings, I was crashing with some friends who had a loft on Broadway and White Street. Remember that Tribeca back then was like a wasteland. It was desolate, but you’d walk along and see some sign of life, like a lit building that looked like a library but would be a bar. Then you’d run into those shadows and they were the first things like that we’d ever experienced.
DP: I also remember his murder series with fake police outlines on the street of dead bodies, but can’t remember if he was doing that here or just in other parts of the country.
OJ: That was here, too. He said he did them in 1979, but he must have still been doing them in 1980 and ’81 because that’s when I could have seen them here. The shadows and the murder series made a profound impact on me back then. Just as his new paintings touched me in a special way in 2009, so when Hank asked me if I wanted to meet Richard, I said, “Sure.”
DP: So you met him almost 30 years later. Did he say for you to go-ahead and make a film about him?
OJ: He didn’t. I just started filming. There was a lot going on his studio because he was getting ready for the new shows. I came in and filmed him and he was receptive, welcoming us in. I didn’t want to put him on the spot by asking, “Can I make a movie about you?” So we didn’t make anything official. I just wanted to build our relationship and he let us be there with our cameras. It really took several years before I felt there was enough of a relationship where I was able to say, “Richard, can you sign a release, can we do this film?”
DP: In your director’s statement in the press notes, you say, “A few months after I began, Richard retreated to his studio, locked me out and refused to see me…[f]or the next three years.”
OJ: More or less, that’s a good summary.
DP: It’s interesting that after he shut you out for three years, he called you after being evicted for not paying his rent—but he was still sneaking into that studio through the side ally—and you resumed making the film that day.
OJ: Well, he responded to my call. I had kept calling him and banging on his door from time to time. But there were times when out of the blue I’d hear from him.
DP: Back when he was doing his street art, should we have known his name if we were paying attention to the art scene?
OJ: As you see in the film, he was actually very well known. The Herald-Tribune did a big write-up on him, there were amazing photographs of him in Life magazine. his paintings were selling for more than Jean-Michel Basquiat’s and Keith Haring’s, even when they were all getting gallery shows and weren’t street artists anymore.
DP: Is he okay when people still compare him to Haring and Basquiat?
OJ: He’s not thinking about what people are saying about him. I really believe that. He may have at one time but he’s beyond that. He references Basquiat in the film at a very low moment when the impact of his bad health is getting to him. He refers to him when he’s thinking of the deprivations he’s been through himself. He’s aware that the three of them will always share that time and place, but his work is very different from that of Basquiat and Haring.
DP: It has been said that Hambleton is the one artist who can’t be forged.
OJ: Yes! Because his brush stroke is so individualistic—so expressive and unusual.
DP: When asked if he considers himself a graffiti artist, Hambleton says he could be called that, but he considers himself instead “a public artist.” What do you think he means by that?
OJ: I think “graffiti” refers to a specific origin and integrity—the New York graffiti artists were mostly African American and Hispanic kids who were in Harlem and the South Bronx, and it exploded around the world. Keith Haring was taught how to use an aerosol spray can by LA2 [Angel Ortiz], whom we interviewed for the film. He collaborated with Haring on most of his paintings. So Haring was connected to graffiti in a different way. And Basquiat, who was not from the projects but was a middle-class kid, began doing exactly what the graffiti kids did. He started by signing his street tag name, SAMO. And then he started to expand to words, but it was like graffiti. Richard was coming with the skill set of a trained artist, with that amazing, gestural power of expressiveness with his brush strokes and referencing others’ work. You saw graffiti as an expression of these artists—and sometimes it was beautiful and sometimes it was just vandalism, but part of its attraction was that it was illegal and in forbidden places, and that’s what Richard borrowed. But he then took it a step further. He had us engage with it not as something that was done as graffiti, someone leaving his mark, but as an emotional experience before you understood what it was. That’s with the shadows and crime scenes.
DP: Did he think of himself then and later, including painting the wall black at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, as being subversive?
OJ: I can’t speak for him, but clearly there was a subversive element in what he was doing. What you mentioned is an example, the early stuff he did in New York was not legal and he was chased by cops many times. There’s a story in the film about how he was beaten up by cops on one occasion.
DP: What was his fascination with the “Marlboro Man?” I think there was something subversive about that art.
OJ: He understood the power of advertising and manipulation through advertising. He saw that there was this American hero mythology that was being used by a company that was selling a product that would kill people. He was engaged by things that had a push and a pull, which forced you into two opposite directions. This was about being pushed and pulled toward life and death. About another body of art that he’s doing now, he tells people who ask what it’s about that “it’s about life and it’s about death, it’s about beauty and it’s about ugliness.” I think all of his art is about those antithetical pulls. He realized that cigarettes and the heroic cowboy had potential for him to explore and pull people into thinking about something.
DP: He speaks of all his art as realism, which I find odd, especially because of the ultra-bright colors he uses.
OJ: Is it realism? Realism is not the same as naturalism. It isn’t an exact photographic record of something. He’s painting about the real world. He’s painting about violence and the darkness of the urban experience that there was when he did his shadows and crime scenes. The waves and landscapes he does now are not necessarily true landscapes but abstractions inspired, as he says, by emotions. He feels love and they’re expressions of love. The paintings all have women’s names. Some he knows, some he doesn’t know. He jokes about it, so it’s hard to tell.
DP: If you asked him what he considers his “peak years,” what do you think he’d say?
OJ: I think all artists are on journeys and don’t think in terms of peaks and valleys. That’s for the critics to do. I think he’s still producing astonishing work. I saw a piece that he did last week and I was stunned. He has done pieces in the 80s and recently that are not as good, but he’s still capable of doing tremendous work.
DP: In your movie, you show him on public access television from just a few years ago and I was surprised at how coherent and comprehensive he is about his work. I had thought he wouldn’t even try to explain it.
OJ: Richard is very articulate. If he’s reluctant to talk it could be partly because of the drugs or partly because he’s not motivated. When he’s motivated to speak, he’s a sophisticated speaker who knows about art history and is very aware of the painters he’s quoting and their stuff he’s either borrowing or having fun with, so it’s not like he’s some diamond in the rough.
DP: Do you feel that before he dies, he is trying to do as much work as he can?
OJ: Definitely. He’s always trying to work as much as he can. It’s almost like a compulsion.
DP: That’s the word I thought of while watching him paint in your movie. It’s almost like a disorder and he’d paint even if he were blind.
OJ: He says in the film that, “It’s conceptual. These ideas are exploding in my head and I have to get them out.”
DP: Is this a film where you confirm who Richard Hambleton is in your mind, or did you make it in order to search for who he is?
OJ: Filmmakers are witnesses, unreliable witnesses. We are spectators with a point of view. I connect with Richard’s work and life on a number of levels—as a New Yorker, as someone who loves art, as someone who empathizes with his battles. My job is to present that all in ways where people can make an emotional connection and come away knowing a little more about some part of the human experience.
DP: Is Richard comfortable with the rich people who buy his art at exorbitant prices at galleries?
OJ: There are certainly collectors who have established relationships with Richard and have stayed with him for decades. I doubt that they see each other all the time but their relationships are maintained. One of the climaxes of the film is his big final Armani one-man show at a fancy gallery on Park Avenue and 57th Street. His former girlfriend, Mette Madson, an artist herself, says that while it was exciting for Richard to see his work reaching all these people, there was a disconnect because he was aware that this art was entering the lives of people who were so radically different from him and had a lifestyle he was not part of. It’s also in the film how we are growing into two different countries—people who can afford to buy Richard’s work and people who can’t afford to.
DP: In your film, we see that Richard Hambleton loves the art he is creating today, so I wonder how he felt those years ago doing temporary art.
OJ: When Banksy was in New York in 2013, we were kind of following him around so that we could show the parallels between him and Richard. On 79th Street near Broadway, Banksy did a painting and the owner of that building put a piece of plexiglass installed over it. That painting is kind of a Banksy shadow, a kid with a club bonking a fire hydrant—and there’s a Richard from the 80s that is exactly like that, so what Banksy did is almost an homage.
DP: Richard Hambleton was born in Canada and did some traveling before settling down in New York. Do you think at this time in life he could paint anywhere else but New York?
OJ: I think painters paint, and wherever he’d be he’d be painting. One time during the filming he expressed that his dream was to make enough money from the Amani shows that he could buy a hotel in the Caribbean and live there.
DP: Did that surprise you?
OJ: A little bit, but I’d seen pictures of Richard on the beach during his world travels back in the 1980s. All New Yorkers dream of going away for a while and being in the sun.
DP: Typically in documentaries about artists with drug problems, there will be postscripts that state when they died. But there’s no such postscript in your movie.
OJ: It’s a miracle. Many people have counted Richard out but he keeps coming back. When we found out that Shadowman was going to play at Tribeca Film Festival, I tried to track down Richard. He wasn’t answering my calls. I ran into someone who knew him and he said, “Oh, Richard has only a few weeks left to live. I don’t know if he’ll make it to the festival.” But word of my finishing the film and that it would be in the festival seems to have been an amazing stimulus to Richard. He’s been painting like crazy, he’s got a pop-up show that he and a friend organized for one night during the festival, and there are several other shows in town that are going to happen. Also he had done another installation at the festival hub on Varick Street, where he’s done some fabulous art. They are some outdoor/indoor pieces that would normally be street works but Tribeca didn’t have space for him to do that legally. So he’s been energized by this. It’s fabulous.
DP: How is it having Shadowman’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival?
OJ: Tribeca has been a wonderful kind of home for me during the course of my career. I have had a few films that played here, and one [Sister Rose’s Passion] in 2004 won a [Best Documentary Short Film] prize here, and I’m sure that was a factor in its being nominated for an Oscar. Then Tribeca commissioned a couple of films from me, and those were wonderful experiences. I hadn’t done a narrative film in a long time, and Tribeca commissioned me to do a short comedy, which was really fun. And I’ve been on a jury one year. So it’s really great to be back with a film because it has been a dozen or so years since I’ve been here. There’s not a more perfect place for this film to show because it’s about a character who I first encountered in Tribeca.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.