From mystery to masterpieces: A Deep Dive into the Art of Richard Hambleton with Joseph & Ronald
Words by AICHA PILMEYER
When discussing the trailblazers of 80s street art, the names of Basquiat and Keith Haring are often the first to come to mind. However, it’s important to acknowledge the godfather of the genre, Richard Hambleton. Hambleton’s “mass murder scenes,” marked by his red blood splashes and signed as “MR REE,” left a lasting impression on New York City and sparked mystery and intrigue among the public and police. Hambleton’s work preceded that of Haring and Basquiat and solidified his position as a pioneer in the street art world.
Soon after the murder scenes, Hambleton plastered the walls of New York with life-sized self-portraits entitled “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Unintentionally natural elements such as rain cause the works to fade away into this empty shells holding the image of what his silhouette used to look like. This led to the creation of his celebrated “Shadow-man” series from 1981 to 1984, which depicted looming figures in the shadows of New York’s narrow alleyways. The Shadow-men conveyed a sense of unease and danger, setting Hambleton apart from other street artists who used walls as canvases for their tags and graffiti. Hambleton was a true artist, using the street as his canvas and imbuing his work with a raw energy that spoke to audiences in its own language.
Hambleton was a master of his craft, and is known for his thought-provoking, provocative works that often explored themes of violence and addiction. Despite his struggles, Hambleton was at the height of his career in the 80s, but his addiction prevented him from building a commercial art career and securing a dealer.The upcoming exhibition at WOODBURY HOUSE aims to give Hambleton the recognition he deserves and shed light on the legacy of this brilliant painter.
Numéro is thrilled to bring you an exclusive interview with Joseph Bannan, the gallery director of Woodbury House London, and Ronald Sosinski, an integral figure of the thriving NYC downtown art scene in the 80s. Who became friends with Hambleton over their shared intellectual interests and love for art.
As the gallery doors swing open, Joseph and Ronald, welcome us into the world of Richard Hambleton. A man who defied the norms and pushed the boundaries of street art. With a brush in one hand and a vision in the other, Hambleton created masterpieces that transcended time and space.
“You can feel the energy as soon as you walk in,” Joseph says with excitement. “The paintings are so vibrant, it’s almost as if the figures could step out of the canvas and join us for this conversation.” Ronald agrees, adding, “The emotional depth of these works is unparalleled. They have an almost cinematic quality to them that draws you in and transports you to another world.”
Joseph and Ronald take me on a journey through the soul of the exhibition showcasing the captivating works of Richard Hambleton. Afterward, we sit down together, and they take time to answer my questions. Diving into the depths of the pieces that have just taken my breath away.
I WOULD LIKE TO HEAR WHY THE EXHIBITION CARRIES THE NAME MR WONDERFUL AND HOW IT REFLECTS THE DUALITY OF RICHARD HAMBLETON’S LIFE AS AN ARTIST.
There is no other work like this one, we created this work together, and to me, it represents our friendship. It shows his artistic talent and marks a pivotal moment in his career as he transitioned from conceptual street art to being a full-fledged painter. What makes this painting unique is the fact that the figure in this painting, Richard himself, is unlike in his other paintings, in a unique state of peace. Usually, the figures are very, very agitated, you’ll notice in this one there is this calmness surrounding him. With a landscape that resembles a Japanese ink painting. It is as if he is drifting into this beautiful atmosphere, very, very unlike any of his other works. The painting is 8 feet tall and made on a piece of gesso paper.
I wanted to have elements in there that represent and define the time period we were in. The black line is a reference to American painter Barnett Newman, and it adds a touch of formalism to the work. While the red tape is a nod to Barbara Kruger, who worked with words and outlined all her work in red.
I have seen many, many Richard Hambleton’s, and I haven’t seen anything with the degree of complexity that this work has. Until Ronald brought it to my attention I didn’t know the work existed. Mr. Wonderful is a masterpiece painting created in 1984. This groundbreaking piece showcases the best elements of Hambleton as an artist and his friendship with Ronald, put together on paper and deliberately unsigned.
Hambleton, as a personal touch, gave the paint sticks used to create the artwork to Ronald and his wife Ellen, with the inscription “For Ellen, Richard Hambleton 1984 & For Ronald, Richard Hambleton 1984”. This gift, along with the painting itself, has been treasured by Ronald and Ellen in their private collection and he only exhibited it twice because the work feels very personal.
Now, we hope to give “Mr. Wonderful” a new home in a museum we think that’s where it belongs, a very notable collection at least. Because that’s where we believe it deserves to be placed, it is a truly magical work.
WHAT MADE RICHARDS TRANSITION FROM STREET ART TO CANVAS SUCCESSFUL, AND WHAT ELEMENTS EMBODY HIS WORK IN YOUR OPINION?
I think it’s his artistic ability. He was an artist first and foremost before he was a street artist. As a student at Emily Carr in Vancouver, Richard learned his skills and developed an unrivaled artistic pedigree. The streets were just his choice of canvas at such time, rather than him being a street artist. His work was not just graffiti or tagging, but rather bringing to life thought-provoking and genius ideas that caught people’s attention. In a time and place where young artists weren’t given the opportunity to showcase their talent, Richard took matters into his own hands and made a name for himself on the streets.
He was a conceptual artist who used the streets as his canvas, and his work is embodied by a consistent use of the color red and a sense of violence in the figures he portrayed. The effect was always the same. His heroin addiction and his fight with the addiction are very, very important and can be sensed in his works. Almost all the figures have a sense of violence to them, jumping, they’re never calm. Even if you look at pieces such as I only have eyes for you – his early work. The eyes are bogged down, and they are wild. He is never at ease. The same with the character on the horse in his work American Rodeo. You can feel throughout his work that he is fighting addiction day and night. So all of it goes back to why Mr. Wonderful is so amazing and unique. Because I had him make something where his soul is at peace. As opposed to completely being in a state of torture. Apart from the unique MR WONDERFUL, and the shadow women Richard his work never portrays something at ease.
He lived many, many years past his expected lifespan due to his addiction. There is this old joke that says when artists die, they become famous, in a strange way with Richard, it actually is true. He said the following after Basquiat died:
“At least Basquiat died. I was alive when I died, that’s the problem.” – Richard Hambleton.
Despite the challenges he faced with addiction, he remained a brilliant painter, and his work from the 80s is a testament to his genius.
I couldn’t agree more. And I think it’s important to also note that the art market can be fickle, and it’s not always easy to place an artist where they belong in art history. However, I believe that with time and the right strategic partnerships, artists like Richard can find their place and receive the recognition they deserve.
DO THE CURRENT TIMES WE LIVE IN AFFECT THE WAY WE VIEW THE NATURE OF RICHARD’S WORK?
The current times have a significant impact on how we view Richard’s works. Richard’s creativity, particularly in his “mass murder series” and “I only have eyes for you” series, was way ahead of its time. He was creating fake crime scenes and portraying himself as the mysterious “Mr. REE” at a time when other graffiti artists were simply writing their names. That is genius. Richard’s work paved the way for street art to become globally recognized and accepted as an art form.
Just imagine if Banksy had revealed a series of mass murder paintings last year. The impact would have been immense, instantly making it the most talked about and controversial art event on social media with millions of followers overnight.
Would Banksy be the protagonist of provocative street art today without the pioneering art of Richard Hambleton? One man’s groundbreaking stunts paved the way for the recognition and acceptance of street art globally. It’s a thought-provoking question worth exploring.
Also, the commercial art world was completely different in the 1970s, when Richard was creating his works. The contemporary art market at auctions only began in the 1980s, and Richard never had the opportunity to benefit from it because of his struggles and the fact that the market simply didn’t exist yet. it took quite a few years for contemporary to become seriously taken. Now, however, is the perfect time for Richard’s works to be appreciated and recognized for their true value. The contemporary art market is booming, and artists are starting to rightfully reclaim their place in the art world.
I view the artworks as extremely cinematic and they reveal themselves time and time again as you sit with them. Only a real painting will continue to reveal itself over time. Each additional minute you spend with the painting will reveal new information about its depth and content. Only the best master painters are capable of creating this type of work. The paintings are museum quality and highly valuable, and the moment is perfect for them to receive the recognition they deserve.
WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF HIS ARTISTRY YOU HOPE PEOPLE WILL TAKE AWAY WHEN THEY EXPERIENCE THE WORKS THEMSELVES?
I want people to come to this exhibition, look at every piece and take something different from each piece and respect Richard his versatile artistic ability and pedigree, which is unrivaled in comparison to any other street artists he’s been compared to in the past.
For me, the emotional depth stands out in his work. As mentioned before, each piece has a cinematic effect that reaches the viewer on an emotional level. Hambleton’s work has a connection to the human soul that one can only appreciate through experiencing the pieces themselves. When you sit with the works, really taking them in, you’re gonna feel you either know that person portrayed, or it’s part of you.
I’m pretty sure when we go home at night and shut the doors, you would be seeing the figures Jumping off the walls. You can even look and find personalities, It could be someone you know, or it could be you up there.
It is probably hard to feel the energy from them sitting where you are, behind the screen. But I think if you walked in here, you’d get it. They could step out on the painting anytime and join us for this conversation. There’s, there’s so much to them
So please compare his work to the likes of Basquiat and Keith Haring and you’ll find it stands among the greatest street art. Richard’s unique vision and talent place him ahead of his peers and establish him as an artist of immense importance. The next time you see his work, you’ll agree that he is truly a master of his craft.”
It is almost unbelievable when you consider the lifestyle Richard led, and the number of years he lived, it is simply impossible to survive the amount of time he did. Why is that? Is it down to purpose?
He loved painting. I know someone that saw him the day before he died, all Richard said; ‘Get me a piece of paper, I need to make a drawing.’ So his soul was in the work. It was his entire life.
Richard Hambleton I Only Have Eyes For You, 1980, Double Sided Archival Print On Paper
Mr Wonderful’ the exhibition is open to the public from 03.02 until 28.02. Please note this exhibition is by appointment only. To make an appointment please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0203 750 2222.
Visit there website: https://woodburyhouseart.com