Painter Ryan Hewett’s Preview Exhibition at Unit London

A glimpse at the eerie, impressive work from the South African portrait artist

By Joanna Della-Ragione

Muted color palettes, thick impasto and distorted features are all common elements of Ryan Hewett’s recent work, marking a new direction for the South African painter. Best known for his iconic portraits of notable figures from Winston Churchill to Warhol’s poster girl Edie Sedgwick, Hewett describes his week-long preview show at Unit London as a “stepping stone—traversing past, present and future.” The 14 paintings on display, some borrowed from private collections, are a precursor to his solo show which is to take place at the gallery in October over Frieze Week.

For the 37-year-old painter, this is a seminal moment in his career—and this preview exists to map his progress over the past five years. “Marcel Duchamp,” a portrait from 2015, is an eery apparition floating in a shadowy background dotted with color. With his long nose and confrontational stare, the portrait is still very much recognizable as Duchamp, but there’s something in the application of the paint which is denser, his mark making more sculptural than in the earlier Churchill and Christ portraits that are also on show.

“I was drawn to the strangeness of Marcel’s character,” says Hewett. “I don’t particularly like his work but as an individual visually I find him eerie. I’m attracted to imagery, I need to be drawn to a picture and with Marcel there’s something about him.” Conversely, the “Creative Heads” triptych (2016), painted in the wake of Duchamp this year, is far more scaled back. In some cases there are black holes in the absence of features, and yet the memory, the semblance of a face is still very much present.

The newest paintings, much like the older ones in the show, serve to disconcert the viewer. Whether portraits stare into the viewer’s eyes or features are distorted beyond recognition the sense of “otherness” remains. You feel that the painter has captured the essence of his ghostly subjects—that each one could have actually sat for him and that the strokes of his brush and the layers of paint have quite literally built a character.

Bacon and Freud are obvious influences, as well as the contemporary painter Adrian Ghenie, “but I try not to get too involved in other people’s art,” says Hewett. “I don’t want to stare at other people’s work all day although sometimes you have to dive into other people’s work and steal a little bit.”

“We found Ryan online,” says Unit London director Joe Kennedy. “Jonny Burt, my co-director, was running a blog before we started the gallery and had featured Ryan’s work on there so they were already in conversation. When we opened our first gallery we approached him and it turned out he had two canvases already in west London, close to where we were. We drove over to this guy’s house and picked up the two paintings for our first ever show. Ryan was the first name that we secured for our opening show and it was a big deal, we sold those works almost immediately and built the relationship from there.”

As well as sell-out shows in South Africa, what followed was a blockbuster solo exhibition, “Untitled,” last year at Unit London, with every piece sold before opening night. There is currently a waiting list for works and similar success is expected in October. In spite of loving art at school Hewett had no formal training. He started a graphic design course and dropped out. He worked instead as a lifeguard and model, which he says he hated but with the money he earned he was able to start painting again.

“At first I was scared of the canvas; I used to mix up all my paints and put all the lids on and be so structured, I’d go through this whole routine and keep my brushes clean but over the years I’ve completely changed, my studio is a total mess now, I like building up paint and letting it naturally make a mess, and pin it up and come across sheets of it,” he says. “Sometimes there’s a reference that structurally fits, if I see an eye or a neck in the mess, that triggers something off. I’ve taken to building up a background before something comes to me, to start with a white canvas and draw in a loose charcoal rendering. I’d never use a projector, I like that it’s not perfect, I don’t like to think that I’ve got the image in my head before I’ve even started.”

“I use so many tools from brushes to rollers to palette knives, spray and cloth and it’s all there if you look into the painting, you’ll see it in the mark making.” Progress and change are notoriously difficult for artists, particularly if they’ve built a niche around a particular style. “New work is going to be more personal, I’m not saying that there won’t be references to well-known people and iconic characters but my thought pattern is changing. I know there’s going to be a portrait of Nelson Mandela—but it’s all going to link to parts of my life: family, looking back into my past, even struggles with drug addiction at one stage. I’m looking at myself and others in a fresh way—it’s both exhilarating and terrifying.”

Ryan Hewett preview exhibition runs through 22 May at Unit London, 147 Wardour Street, W1F 8WD.

Images courtesy of Unit London