This April, London’s breakthrough artist-led gallery space, The Unit London, presents ‘Untitled’, an exhibition of contemporary portraiture by Ryan Hewett, one of South Africa’s leading artists.
The exhibition focuses on the depiction of leading figures from the past and present who have somehow shaped the world in which we live. Alongside such revered icons as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, Hewett also portrays such infamous persona as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Osama bin Laden.
Untitled presents these figures through a markedly honest, unbiased lens; any judgement on them is made by the viewer. Whilst the paintings are loaded and complex, Hewett does not prescribe his works with a political message, and this is reflected in the exhibition’s title.
The theme was inspired by a recent quotation on gay marriage from Pope Francis I, “Who am I to judge?”
“That statement got me thinking about where we are in the world today,” says Hewett. “With the prolificacy of social media, everybody now offers their instant commentaries – judgments – on political and religious figures. People get carried away with judgements, yet I believe we should be standing back and giving more reflection to the effects, good and bad, that these figures – these people – have had, and are having on us as individuals and a society.”
Hewett’s portraits are not life-like depictions, but rather contemporary semi-abstract representations. Starting from a familiar iconic image, he strips away the likeness of each subject through the use of richly hued textures, splashes of colour and broad brushstrokes. In deconstructing the likeness of his subjects, Hewett conjures a visceral, raw and uncompromising account of their legacies. According to esteemed writer and art critic Edward Lucie-Smith, Hewett’s pictures “appear on the painted surface in the form of extraordinary apparitions, present yet not present. The vigorous marks of the brush reveal them, yet at the same time conceal them”.
The pictures are both brooding and evocative and mark a significant development in Hewett’s 12-year career as an artist. Self-taught, he began with realistic pencil drawings before evolving to a looser, more modern style in oil, with multi-layered surfaces and hard mark making. Edward Lucie-Smith sees echoes of a British painter.
“Hewett’s work resembles the portraits made by Frank Auerbach, but the actual touch is much lighter and more fluent – there is a dance of recognition, rather than a laborious excavation.”
Until now, Ryan Hewett’s subjects tended to be people with whom he was acquainted. Now, with famous figures within the public consciousness, he aims to stimulate discussion and dialogue.
“It is not going too far,” says Edward Lucie-Smith, “to say that these are participatory pictures – we become part of them, engaged by the act of looking.”
Ryan Hewett has exhibited extensively in his native South Africa and as far afield as Hawaii, Los Angeles, Berlin and London with sell-out success. He lives in Natal with his wife Shaleen and their young son Eli.