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Christopher Dewdney

Richard Hambleton
Flavio Belli Gallery, Toronto, February 25 - March 21

Vanguard, Vol. 11 #4, May 1982.
[ 955 words ]


Artists forget your personal vision, fight the poison of individuality.
(Graffito, Queen St., Toronto)

Street art has always held a special fascination for artists, particularly in the 20th century. The 'street' is a truly egalitarian gallery, where art is stripped totally of privilege and must survive on its own in a highly competitive visual environment. The most vital of this century's art movements all emerged through a seemingly necessary manifestation of public confrontation. This confrontation with the 'public at large' represents a more direct apprehension of the role of the artist as a commentator on social realities. It can also be a vehicle for the influence of that social reality, if the attunement of the 'message' or 'piece' is precise enough to mimic an archetype and thereby invade the communolect.

In a sense, on Queen Street in Toronto, we have a recursive critical situation where artists are commenting on the 'artistic community' itself. Hence the opening quote, by someone obviously disheartened by the consumeristic narcissism of a parochial 'art scene' inbred to the point of critical myopia. I hope it didn't originate from a Marxist dialectic, as that would overly simplify the necessary contemplative response. The implications of this phrase are cathartic indeed. It contravenes almost everything taken as implicit in the prevalent model of 'art' and by doing so reveals a great deal about the nature of these assumptions. I recommend it as an ontological exercise for anyone who can forego a priori judgements as to its naiveté or political drift.

The only art to escape from such a canon would, of course, be street art executed in total anonymity. Richard Hambleton's work would seem to qualify, even in the face of his subsequent unveiling, as the majority of people exposed to his Image Mass Murder still have no clue as to its origin.

Richard Hambleton's formula was simple and brilliant. He decided to stage murder scenes by painting the chalk outlines police usually draw around the bodies of murder victims. He would enlist the aid of volunteers in the city chosen for his Image Mass Murder pieces, and, having them lie in suitable positions and locales would then paint their outlines on the pavement. After they had gotten up he would splash some very realistic looking 'blood' on the outline, matching the area in which he determined they had been stabbed or shot. The realism of these tableaux is remarkable. Coming upon one by chance, the unwary discoverer of such an outline immediately presumes that indeed a murder has taken place here, and without subsequent verification in the newspaper, then presumes that some form of 'cover-up' is taking place. To further confuse matters, Mr. Hambleton would often put these outlines in areas of the city designated as 'low-crime areas'. The media response has been swift and impressive in each centre that Richard Hambleton 'did'. Headlines like 'Seattle's Scary Sidewalks' and 'I'm afraid to walk my dog at night' (a headline in the San Francisco Examiner) proclaim the effective realism of these tableaux, and their effect of increasing urban paranoia. In fact, Mr. Hambleton would qualify as a 'psychic terrorist', by increasing the anxiety levels of urban dwellers in all the centres he has 'done'.

In the period from April 1976 to October 1979, in San Francisco, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago, New York, Seattle, Montreal, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Portland, Ottawa and Banff, Richard Hambleton executed 620 of these outlines. His work has been apprehended, perhaps on the fringe of a first-order experience, by thousands, perhaps millions of individuals. This work, in its scope and execution is marvellous. His stencil piece I.D. therefore I am is one of the cleverest re-takes on Descarte's axiom since Cadbury's 'I thick, therefore I mmmmm.' The only other graffito that matches the stencil is the single word 'OBEY', also on Queen Street in Toronto, by an anonymous artist.

The rest of the exhibition dealt with Mr. Hambleton's I.D.'s Mr. Reeee-Search project. To that end, Mr. Hambleton has chosen to exhume correspondence art, which had presumably gone the way of xerography, early 'punk' graphics and hopefully 'high tech' and futon beds, never to rear its banal head again. However, one wall of the gallery and 2/3 of the catalogue were devoted to correspondences to a 'fill-in-the-blank-features' form that Mr. Hambleton fed into the 'network'. The idea of correspondence art and the 'eternal network' was laudable, though misguided, and the proliferation of hastily executed and equally hastily assumed 'fetish themes' quickly swamped any direction the 'movement' had. Fortunately, the idea didn't 'catch' and the public at large has been spared at least this segment of redundant imagery.

In the public domain, danger or its possibility provides the maximum thrust. Hence the admirable success of the Image Mass Murder pieces or the stenciled black pistol in the middle of a 'blood splash' of red paint which have recently cropped up on walls in Toronto, by possibly another anonymous artist. Mr. Hambleton has recently taken to pasting full size black and white halftones of himself on brick walls in the 'target' cities. While the 'danger' has been subsumed into the gesture of his hand reaching inside of his jacket, these images have a vaguely disconcerting air. They are two-dimensional presences with a ghostly ambience, having the look of publicity for a film that was never developed, much less screened. A grey haunting spectre proliferating in the peripheral vision of the public domain.


Vanguard, Vol. 11 #4, May 1982.

Text: © Christopher Dewdney. All rights reserved.

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