Constantly swinging between realism and abstraction, the work of Ryan Hewett – a self-thought South African painter who’s made a name for himself with a slew of sell-out exhibitions around the globe – lays bare the intrinsic duality of portraiture, namely, the tension between external representation and the inner being.
A few months after U – a group show that aimed to investigate the conception and expression of our individualities in the Digital Age – Hewett returns to The Unit London for his first solo exhibition in the capital.
Revolving around the theme of leadership, Untitled features over twenty intensely evocative portraits of some of the most famous – and infamous – icons and leading figures of all time. Devoid of any political message or proclivity, each painting emerges from what we may call a process of deconstruction, to disclose the subjects inner “topography”, and give a raw and uncompromising account of their legacy. Through splashes of colour and broad, vigorous brushstrokes, Hewett removes the external likeness of his illustrious sitters, allowing the pictures to – in the words of esteemed writer and art critic Edward Lucie-Smith – “appear on the painted surface in the form of extraordinary apparitions, present yet not present.”
1883 caught up with Ryan to find out more about his new body of work.
How did the exhibition – Untitled – come about in the first place?
I don’t think the idea of iconic characters existed from the beginning. I started thinking about portraying religious leaders, political leaders and the dictators of today. There were those three categories and then I thought it would be interesting to focus on the past and present. I struggled with the concept for this show for a good few months because I had never created anything with such a potent theme before, and I’m not a politically driven person either. But, as an artist, I was compelled with this topic, and I felt that it was my duty to assemble all of these characters together in one room. In that sense, they’re humanized because in decontextualizing them, they’re all on a level playing field. I’m not here trying to make some huge political statement; Untitled is all about stripping away the titles of these figures through the deconstructive nature of my work, so you see the individual before the icon. Any judgement is left to the viewer.
How did you choose the subjects for the show?
I started by including figures who I believed were pivotal and influential in the world today, such as Obama. Then I started thinking about past leaders like Lincoln – and then dictators, and so on. I think it’s relatively easy to find 50 individuals that were important in history and who have shaped the world we live in today, but I chose those whom I personally considered most important – those whom I believe have made a mark. I don’t have a precise criteria; these are instinctive choices that I have made as an artist depicting figures who have shaped civilisation.
Although Untitled does not mean to convey any political statement, I wondered, what, in your view, does it take to be a great leader?
The ability to delegate. Creativity. The ability to inspire. Confidence. Intuition – and much more topped with a whole bunch of LOVE.
Among the leading figures featured in the show, who do you think has left the biggest mark on history?
Jesus ‘The Messiah’.
Your work has been compared to that of Frank Auerbach; how does this make you feel?
I feel very honoured.
And what artists are you feeling at the moment?
Degas and Adrian Ghenie.
As a last question, what’s next for you?
I’ll be taking a short break now. This body of works has taken a lot out of me, but I’ll back at the studio pretty quickly – I can’t be out of it for very long. I have a couple of projects planned, and there are group shows and art fairs on the horizon before my next solo show in Cape Town in February 2016.
Ryan Hewett – Untitled will be running from 24th April – 24th May at The Unit London, 7 Earlham St, London WC2H 9LL
Words by Jacopo Nuvolari