“And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again: and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.” – Richard II, William Shakespeare – Richard II.
‘Unking’ is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable neologisms, strikingly direct in the midst of a winding monologue by the title character at the end of Richard II. The idea of leaving an art show untitled is a common enough trope to make one roll one’s eyes, but in Ryan Hewett’s new exhibition at The Unit London, the elusive name is a cunning move, when thought about as antonymic to what is ‘titled’ – his bold, impasto portraits of notable figures removes their constructed iconographies; they untitle them.
In the course of writing this review and opening up my word processor, my attention was brought to another definition of untitled, one which is rapidly becoming the default one; the untitled computer file. To be untitled in the digital age is to be synonymous with being unfinished. Fitting then, it should dub an exhibition where the paintings are completed by the viewer. The individual pieces are only known by their initials, so there is a guessing game to take part in, but also the nature of the colourful, abstract pieces means you’re not so much presented with a face but one emerges according to how you are prepared to see it. Faces are not presented, rather, they bloom from collisions of colour. The picture of Jesus is the best bridge for this, what with the history of seeing pictures of Christ in random shapes (Perhaps Unit London could look into loaning it to the newest Turin Shroud display). More recently, iconography has been de rigueur since Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ portrait of Barack Obama in 2008, and this makes the show as relevant as it could have ever been. Hewett manages to maintain an admirable distance from essentialising his subjects; the blotches of colour smeared across the canvas could easily be made by the defacer rather than the portraitist (many of the paintings are built from oil and spray). It gives the artist freedom from putting his entire weight behind simple criticism of approval of the person portrayed.
Hewett’s style combines the aggressive, thickly applied technique running through Bacon, Freud and Auerbach with traces of abstract expressionism. Using the latter’s example of subconsciously inferred patterns ties with the artist’s expressed intent, which is to avoid ‘instant commentaries’ on notable figures, in favour of more ‘reflection’ to the (often random and unpredictable) effects that they cause on wider society, not allowing obsession with image and personality to dictate our interpretation and interaction with the world. Using a less bounded palette of colours and shapes gives the impression of collision, of the portrait not standing statically but being impacted upon the canvas, showing the diaspora of consequences that the subjects’ existence and their actions brings forth. The exhibition groups heroes with villains, black with white (particularly important given the artist’s native country’s history with race – after all, what is a ‘natural’ skin tone?), something assisted by Unit London’s clever use of space. The gallery building is a gutted former Adidas shop, meaning that old cupboards and fitting rooms have been appropriated as little discovery spaces which offer a more private glimpse of a piece, and help break up the often routine circuit of going around an exhibition. There are some visual gags to enjoy as well; Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin keep each other company on the stairs, each providing inspiration for fanatical worship in their native land, and fanatical hatred in the other’s.
All in all, an exhibition worth visiting and an upcoming gallery to keep an eye on. Since their Modern Portraiture show last year, The Unit London have made a name for themselves in that field, shaking up a form which is still sometimes considered to be quite stale. To sell out the paintings weeks in advance is no mean feat. What’s more, their effusive embrace of social media, paired with the genial atmosphere of the opening night, suggests a bright future ahead. I await what they have planned for the rest of 2015 with great anticipation.
The Unit London, 9 Earlham Street, London, WC2H 9LL. Nearest Tube: Covent Garden. Exhibition runs until 24th May.