Ryan Hewett – Untitled, exhibition at The Unit London


“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.

'J.C', Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 130x120cm.

‘J.C’, Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 130x120cm.

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.

'B.H.O', Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 92 x 85cm.

‘B.H.O’, Ryan Hewett. 2015. Oil and spray on canvas. 92 x 85cm.

 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 GardenExhibition runs until 24th May.


Birdman, or, The Unexpected Ignorance of Jimmy Fallon

In a publicity interview for Birdman, Ed Norton relates an instruction he received from the director Alejandro González Iñárritu: he shouldn’t try and play an artist, but create the sense of midlife malaise that could be felt by someone any profession. Birdman certainly works as a general fable, but it highlights a very pointed paradox currently at the centre of celebrity culture and cinema: do we want actors to be superheroes, who offer us an escape route from our anxieties, or do we feel more comfort in tracking their every movement through social media, and thinking that they are just like one of us? This is just the starting point for many debates which the film prompts regarding how identity is sculpted.

Since Christopher Nolan tore up the rulebook  and then painted the shreds deep black in his reboot of the Batman franchise, superhero  films have, at their best, examined the post- 9/11 climate astutely and thrown up difficult moral quandaries. In the main though, franchises are, by definition, based upon following a person or group of people who have been marked for greatness in some way, and then facilitating the (significantly sized) audience’s sympathies towards them. Alongside this, we have Jimmy Fallon as ringmaster to a showbiz circus where celebrities are encouraged to talk about the times that they did Normal Things, or coerced into doing Activities. The world wants to see Riggan Thompson reprise his role as Birdman, but they also want him to see him parade through Times Square in his underwear. How can two such opposing views coexist? It’s an intriguing question, and Birdman wants us to carefully consider the possible answer.

Emmanuel Lubezki continues his Midas touch in this film, with his distinctive use of Steadicam and long takes central to the thematic package of the picture. The camera has to follow something, so it follows the characters. The viewer becomes a voyeur, because none of the characters in the film have any intimate space to retreat into with the camera always following them.

"A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing" © Fox Searchlight 2014.

“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing” © Fox Searchlight 2014.

There is one shot in this film where that is suspended, and the viewer is instead forced to glimpse down an empty corridor for approximately ten seconds (it may be even shorter than that, but it felt like an eternity in the cinema). It creates an incongruously static space, as you are forced to consider just how many extended glimpses you have had of the characters on screen. In the deep field of the frame is something – I couldn’t make out exactly what – going on, but it’s tantalisingly too far out of sight to be perceived. It suggests hidden mysteries along the lines of Thompson’s possible supernatural powers, and also forces the viewer to try and engage their mind to think about what is happening, rather than having a succession of images imprinted upon their mind. Hidden in there is a comment on the sheer amount of information that is available to people in digital spaces, particularly as so much bandwidth is taken up by social media avatars. That one shot was one of the most understated yet powerful I’ve ever seen in a film, and the tension it created within the room is a testament to the experience of watching films with dozens of strangers, rather than on your own through Netflix.

The presence of the superhero in popular culture has helped bring to light the ‘hero syndrome’, whereby an individual deliberately commits acts, such as arson, so that they can become famous for saving people’s lives from the tragic event that they instigate. There are peripheral instances of this in the film aligned in parallel; the meteor that he summons with a click of his fingers during a flight of fantasy, and the stage light which he makes fall on the original actor whom Edward Norton’s character replaces.

Shiner is in his underwear here, foreshadowing Harrison's undressing. © Fox Searchlight 2014

Shiner is in his underwear here, foreshadowing Thompson’s undressing. © Fox Searchlight 2014

Here then, the superhero ideal is undercut with a subtle comment from Iñárritu: namely, that superheroes are only judged on a relative basis to the non-super. Thompson’s attempts to become an auteur/superhero hybrid require the manipulation and neglect of others, particularly his daughter. He does not ascend from a static base, but applies pressure downwards. The quest to obtain constructive powers necessitates destructive relationships with those around him. Another parallel in the film serves to highlight Thompson’s decline (rather than ascent): he is late to the first rehearsal shown in the film with all the bravado of a Hollywood export to Broadway, but his delay during the final preview is due to him having to endure being stripped naked in every sense on Times Square.

jimmy just like us

It’s Jimmy Fallon! He blew a date with Nicole Kidman! Like that time you blew a date with that girl! Crazy! © NBC Universal 2015.

All characters in the film are trapped within the web of showbusiness. The lines between their performances and their true selves are blurred to the point of personal veracity being completely unreliable. Almost every character lies. The principle of acting is transposed onto day-to-day life, as the intrusion into public lives dictated by social media is shown to be an auction-house for personas, instead of a reliable barometer for personalities. Here’s where Jimmy Fallon comes in. The guests on his show seem to be giving an account of themselves that is much more genuine than other chat shows, but it is still a question of persona, whether at work or play. The film posits that people exist with an arsenal of different personalities ready to be deployed on the right occasion. This split of personas, or constant reinforcement of performance, is rendered on screen by the technique of only showing a character’s reflection on screen as they talk to someone – the viewer can only see the reflected image, not the person actually speaking. The supposedly intimate space of the dressing room still leads to dispersion of identity.

Thompson’s life story, of trying to be a superhero on the Hollywood set and the Broadway stage (important to realise that his attempts to import his vision onto the Broadway stage is a form of self-indulgent heroism in its own right) leads him to have a fractious relationship with his family, particularly his daughter, played sensitively by Emma Stone. As well as the strange expectations of transcendence and groundedness which we desire from public figures (applicable to politics as well – Barack Obama is, or was to predominantly European commentators, a beacon of idealistic change but also a guy familiar with the streets) ,

I mean it was made by a street artist with stencils, for god's sake. 'Hope', Shepard Fairey, 2008.

I mean it was made by a street artist with stencils, for god’s sake. ‘Hope’, Shepard Fairey, 2008.

a superhero culture creates a debate that applies to life more generally. What is the currency of relationships? Are they formed from epic acts, or more banal interactions that exist largely to fill a vacuum? With Thompson’s daughter, the complete absence of the latter confirms that it is more important.

Keaton and Stone's distant relationship is a refreshing antidote to patronising cliche. © Fox Searchlight 2014.

Keaton and Stone’s distant relationship is a refreshing antidote to patronising cliche. © Fox Searchlight 2014.

I have no discernable performing talent. I don’t act, I can’t play a musical instrument, and if my dancing could be summarised in one word, it would be ‘unnecessary’. Yet since the age of 14 I have harboured a fantasy that I will get up on a stage and perform something so intensely powerful and moving in front of all the people I know – in the curious way they can be organised together in a dream – that will completely overwhelm them, lay forward my personality in a super-comprehensible way and perhaps summarise what the whole world is about too. This is not how life works. Life is forged from miniature interactions. A friendship is composed of simply being there when the going is good, even if the conversation remains skipping along the surface. The last shot in the film will undoubtedly go down in cinema history as a head-scratcher for generations to come, but my feeling is that Sam is not looking at her father in flight, but rather the birds shown earlier in the scene; as someone who was left in the residual heat of her father’s Icarean trail, she is more appreciative of the small-scale wonders.  Dedicating yourself to mammoth artistic projects often divorces you from human society, which is paradoxically the inspiration and audience for such a project. Think about Carver’s manifold title – are the ‘we’ who talk about love and the ‘we’ who experience it one and the same? Can the artist be part of both groups?

Sam Harrison's threats of suicide are yet another parallel the film sets up - a suggestion that for all of the role play at work, it gravitates towards particular types.

Sam Thompson’s threats of suicide are yet another parallel the film sets up – a suggestion that for all of the role play at work, it gravitates towards particular types.

Staying on this theme, Antonio Sanchez’s soundtrack is constantly teasing the viewer who is expectant for some regular rhythm to emerge, when one never really does. It is like a constant clearing of the throat preparing for a symphonic release that will envelop the film and neatly wrap it in a bow to say: this is what this is, and this is what it is all about, but the reveal of the soundtrack’s diegetic origins keeps everything tethered to the film’s core.

Just as the soundtrack is trapped within the film, Thompson gets his wings clipped too. As much as Thompson’s opening night performance is feted, I can’t help but feel the film is playing a bit of a joke and suggesting that all he has done is quite literally cut his nose off to spite his face, caught between the two stools of reality and representation. Birdman posits so many different forms of identity that it is difficult to arrive at a meaningful conclusion. However, the film shows that art rises amidst such a backdrop because it is defined by representation, relying as it does on a sense of performance that outstrips the manipulation of identity through social networks. The conflict between Thompson’s ego and the artistic project he develops emphasises the need for art as a communal space, one where meaning emerges from a communication between artist and audience, rather than pandering to how we wish to be perceived.