With Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Richard Hambleton was a pioneer of New York’s street art scene. His darkly humorous works star in new Hong Kong exhibition

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Hambleton’s career was marked with distinct phases, and “The Last Shadows” captures the essence of each of them – how he progressed from a promising, charming, twenty-something student to a wheelchair-ridden, heroin-addicted 65-year-old, whose face had collapsed from a cancer for which he’d refused to get treatment.

“Untitled (Exploding Shadowhead)” (2017), by Richard Hambleton. Photo: Courtesy of HKwalls

It is co-curated by Edward Straka and Alasdair Pitt – two ex-Hongkonger Americans who had personal ties with Hambleton during his final years – and Hong Kong gallery HKwalls.

Hambleton made his name through a series of public art projects that saw him travel to major North American cities and paint fake chalk outlines of murder scenes at night.

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“He drew these outlines on the street and splashed red paint from a ketchup bottle,” says Straka.

“People didn’t know what to think of it but that’s much of what Richard did. He was always in the spirit of dark humour. Always trying to elicit a reaction.”

Of course, the works were not the result of actual murders, but were meant to reflect how crime-ridden the cities were at the time.

“The Last Shadow” starts with a display showing a photo of Richard Hambleton in his 20s. Photo: Courtesy of HKwalls

Hambleton then became active in street art in New York, where he plastered big photographs of himself on walls, his menacing eyes staring directly at passers-by.

“He started putting these around New York to get people wondering, ‘What is this all about?’ But what happened over time was rain and snow deteriorated the paper, leaving just a shadow,” says Straka.

The shadows became known as the “shadowman”, Hambleton’s most recognised art series.

“The Golden Boy”, by Ricard Hambleton. Photo: Courtesy of HKwalls

Hambleton then started creating works for galleries, but it didn’t last long. “He just didn’t want to be part of that scene,” says Straka. “He was a lone wolf. He didn’t like dealing with galleries and started getting difficult with them. He slowly got shunned.”

The last section of the exhibition, works he painted towards the end of his life, are some of the most powerful and thought-provoking, reflecting a man vastly altered from his younger days.

In his final days, Hambleton could barely move, but he continued to paint. For his last work, a big final Shadowman titled The Final Work, he had to be lifted up to reach the top of the canvas.

“The Lady in Red” (2017), by Richard Hambleton. Photo: Courtesy of HKwalls

His self-portrait from this phase is missing a nose – a realistic depiction, the cancer having consumed it. Untitled (Exploding Shadowhead) (2017) has tiny splashes that seem to be exploding out of a face that looks deeply tormented. The harrowing marks appear to express the pain and mental chaos he was experiencing.

Straka and Pitt remember the artist fondly and say he was happy to just have someone to talk to.

“We really liked him and I think he really liked us, because he could sense that we cared,” says Straka.

The exhibition at Soho House will continue until January 28. Photo: Courtesy of HKwalls

“Richard Hambleton: The Last Shadows”, Soho House, 33 Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan, until January 28.

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