It was this desire to affect his audience in a very real, immersive and visceral way that alerted the art world to his presence, such was the immediacy of impact on every level of society. No one was immune to the power of his work, namely the Shadowmen, because they existed not in a gallery or museum, but in one’s everyday periphery. Day and night they watched over passersby, like guardians of the world they occupied, latently becoming part of the very fabric of social consciousness en masse. However, what made him truly significant as an artist in, and moreover beyond, his time owed a great deal to his seeming desire to be insignificant, a feeling that became ever stronger the more he battled his personal demons. As his addictions took hold, Richard retreated ever further into his work, which made it overwhelmingly pure in its expression. He did not seek adulation or praise, his only desire was to create. The farther back into the shadows he crawled, the further he enthralled the viewers and admirers of his art and the more people hungered for his work. This is why Richard left such a lasting impression - he did not seek critical acclaim, rather he simply wanted to leave those that saw his work in shock and awe, consciously impressed upon by what they saw and experienced. Whilst he allowed himself to get caught up in the whirlwind of excitement bestowed upon him by critics and collectors alike, with his face appearing in Vogue, Life and People, this quickly became at odds with what he was striving to achieve. In the 1980s, Richard embarked on his ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ installation project, which saw a series of 800 life-size cut-outs of him, looking well-dressed in a sharp suit, were placed across thirteen cities. Here is a case of life imitating art, or perhaps art imitating life, as these figures – once sharp and in focus – would slowly fade with time and exposure to the elements. In much the same way that Richard sought to make his mark on the world, and then disappear from view, these figures would fade into still recognisable but unattainable outlines, mere shadows of their former selves. Whilst this is hauntingly appropriate for a man who became a veritable recluse, it was
this desire for anonymity that made his work even more powerful. Whilst it is an unavoidable fact that his work was adored, coveted and purchased by collectors, this is not what has formed his legacy, as it was something he increasingly shied away from, and ultimately rejected, seeking only to ‘create art for art’s sake’. the established order, leaving markers of a shadowy presence that evoked self-awareness in every single individual who encountered them. It was this that made him an innovator because it involved and genuinely affected the audience, whether they liked it or not. Instilling fascination, fear and wonder in his audience with a powerful aura of meaning and malevolence, he truly was the ‘Godfather of Street Art’. Whilst it is not a title he would have welcomed, it was his gift to intrigue and unsettle, excite and disarm that left an undeniable, indelible and permanent mark. He emerged from the shadows and changed the game. Richard Hambleton was an ‘elusive genius’, a protagonist and an agitator. He wanted to unsettle
In this brand new editorial series, we will be highlighting the individuals we recognise as having changed the course of history. From groundbreaking pioneers, to those who rebelled against the establishment, or in even the most modest ways challenged and changed the norm, we want to spotlight the artists whose contributions defined the art industry of today. Our inaugural feature takes a look at the career of Richard Hambleton, and the very tangible legacy he left behind. Against the backdrop of a burgeoning art scene in downtown 1980s New York there appeared an artist, a man who rose out of the shadows and changed the landscape of the art world at large. Under the blanket of the night sky, Richard Hambleton became quite literally a ‘Shadowman’, dancing in and out of the darkness like an elusive performance artist. Adorning seemingly random sites in some of the most dangerous parts of the district with ominous silhouettes, he left beholders at once unsettled, intrigued and - most crucially - included. Using the whole city as his canvas, the Shadowmen that appeared as if by magic were unavoidable and polarising. It was here that true street art, in the purest sense, was born. Before this process and style were truly crystalised, Richard offered an insight conceptually into what was to come with his ‘Image Mass Murder’ series. Simulating the chalk outlines of crime scene victims, he opened the eyes of the public to his bold, dark and unrepentant desire to shock. Raw and unashamed in displaying the unavoidable reality of life and death, done so with a speed of expression and execution necessitated by the sites he purposefully picked for the level of risk they possessed, these macabre outlines lay down a marker for how Richard wanted to affect society, through its inner psyche.
Words by guest contributor, Sam Rix (Gallery Manager at Castle Fine Art in Meadowhall, Sheffield)
60 FINE ART COLLECTOR AUTUMN / WINTER 2021
FINE ART COLLECTOR AUTUMN / WINTER 2021 61
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