“I’ve always liked London,” says Ryan Hewett on the eve of his landmark new show in the city — which is fortunate, as London has always rather liked him too. The South African painter’s first European exhibition back in 2015 — UNTITLED at the Unit Gallery in Soho — sold out in less than three hours, while a coterie of the capital’s collectors (the type who usually deal in Basquiats and Condos) has long been stoking up market interest in his pieces.
“The new show is all about exploring the female figure,” Hewett tells me of his June exhibition, his soft Cape Town accent jumping from playful to profound in a single syllable. “It’s quite pulled back from my earlier chaotic style. And it’s quite futuristic in some ways, too.”
It’s also not quite finished. When we talk in the spring, Ryan tells me that he’s about halfway through the set of eight-to-ten pieces he’d like to exhibit in the summer. “But I’ve always worked quite well under pressure and with deadlines,” he laughs.
“When I was younger, I had to finish paintings within a few sessions. Now, even though the works are more simplistic, putting them together takes a lot more thought process. There’s a lot more staring at the canvas and working things out. It’s about stepping back.”
Hewett’s earlier work was characterised by its thickly stacked layers of paint — chunky-textured portraits that played with facial features, colour and light.
“Now it’s more about lined shapes and cutouts. But I like where I’m going with this new direction,” he says. “I feel like I’ve found something that I want to move into. You’ve got to challenge yourself. You’ve got to critique your work. It can’t all be: ‘this is great, this is awesome — I’ll do this forever.”
Some works are more challenging than others. “I love what I do, but it’s highly frustrating too — continuously trying to break down barriers and break through the blocks and keep pushing forward. It’s a mental warfare, sometimes. There’s highs and massive lows.” Hewett says. “It’s my love, but it’s not all that easy.”
The new collection doesn’t have a name yet (“that comes right at the end”), but there’s already a rumbling hype around the summer show, not to mention steady intrigue from both local and international collectors.
For Hewett, however, fashions and market whims come second to the graft at the coalface. “Don’t get stuck in any of that stuff. You’ve got to start on the canvas. You’ve got to experiment. There’s a lot of inspiration around, but you’ve still got to get your skill levels up and paint from your heart,” he says. “You’ve got to put the hours in. You’ve got to push forward.”