While Ryan Hewett has become known for his abstracted paintings of figures, his images have never simply been exercises in service of likeness or identity. Rather, his paintings have always functioned as a deeply personal articulation of self examination, a record of an intuitive and introspective process facilitated by the tactility, viscosity and movement of paint. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that what has been consistently arresting in Hewett’s work is his remarkable ability to capture the ineffable nature of persona and subjectivity in the figures he depicts. Indeed, it is this tension between self and other, artist and subject, which continuously charges Hewett’s work with energy and intrigue, activated by the physicality of his bold impasto. In confronting Hewett’s work we are never simply examining a figure from history, but the artist’s own sense of subjectivity and vulnerability, and in turn our own.
Once Were Leaders represents a dramatic shift in Hewett’s style of abstraction. Here, Hewett explores a more reductive style that responds to his original impulse for chaotic, spontaneous mark making with a new instinct for order and restraint. His signature heavy impasto is contrasted with more subdued areas of flat colour and clean lines. The result is a powerful distillation of the drama of earlier work, enhanced by a new maturity and sensitivity. Hewett employs the unflinching directness allowed by this stripped down approach in an examination of figures from South Africa’s political past. Depicting controversial figures such as Jan Smuts and Hendrik Verwoerd alongside national heroes such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, Hewett contemplates the nature and intersection of power, influence, morality and vulnerability – in both public and private lives.
Ryan Hewett’s debut solo exhibition Genesis was presented by Barnard Gallery in 2013 and sold out within days of it opening to the public; his second solo Enlighten show followed suite with similar success in 2014. The artist has since presented two solo exhibitions in London: Untitled (2015) and Order (2016). The exhibitions were resounding success and the demand for his portraits continues to grow both locally and internationally. In South Africa notable group exhibitions that have included the artist’s work are Future/Present (Barnard Gallery, 2016); Picture & Paper (Barnard Gallery, 2015); Then & Now: Conversations in Time (Barnard Gallery, 2015); Surface: Emerging Painters (Barnard Gallery, 2015); Paint Matters (Barnard Gallery, 2014) and Changing Faces: Profiling Portraits in South African Art (Barnard Gallery, 2013). Internationally the artist has participated in group shows in Berlin, London and San Francisco and his paintings have been presented at various art fairs including Volta NY; FNB Joburg Art Fair; Cape Town Art Fair; Fountain Art Fair, Chicago and SCOPE Miami.