Ryan Hewett’s latest solo exhibition with Unit London is concerned with beginnings and the onward connections from various starting points.
Taking the concept of Generation Alpha (the first group of people born entirely in the twenty-first century) as his starting point, Hewett looks at what it means to be a digital native and what happens when we see the world from a completely new and distinct perspective. In recent years his focus has shifted towards transhumanism, a movement advocating for the use of technology to augment human capabilities. Although using the most traditional of artistic mediums – oil paint on canvas – Hewett is responding to the now, creating art for a world in which artificial intelligence and bionic beings not only exist but may soon flourish.
In this regard, Hewett is tapping into a long-standing art historical tradition, one that was particularly prevalent around one hundred years ago, in the early twentieth century. In Europe, in the years leading up to the First World War, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were producing works in the Cubist style, challenging the merits of realism and impressionism in favour of a new perspective influenced by ideas of modernity and technological progress. Elsewhere, the Italian Futurists were in full force, spurred on by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s cry to “give ourselves utterly to the unknown. Not out of desperation, but only to replenish the deep wells of the absurd.” New ideas were springing up as fast as new technologies were being developed and art was a primary means of individual and collective expression.
Another artist making work at this time who has exerted a powerful influence on Hewett’s aesthetic is Robert Delaunay (1885–1941). Delaunay began by making work in the Cubist style, but his output evolved from this point. Along with his wife Sonia, he founded the artistic movement Orphism. The key visual element of Orphism was the use of bright colour (something often shunned by the Cubists) and his works used bold, geometric forms in portraits and abstract compositions. Delaunay was challenging the visual status quo while responding to the time in which he was living. His work echoed the contemporary drive for invention and innovation; he was interested in science and technology, the heavens and movements of celestial beings. Upon finishing his painting Simultaneous Contrasts: Between the Sun and the Moon, Delaunay signed it 1912, when in fact it had been made in 1913. He was trying to appear even further ahead of his peers; at this stage, there was no merit in doing what other people were doing, you had to make something new and make it before anyone else did.
Now, whilst we are arguably in a period of equally radical societal and technological change, it is interesting to view Hewett’s work in light of Delaunay’s. The obvious aesthetic parallels are enriched by these similarities in context. Hewett is also thinking about contemporary science and technology: his futuristic portraits capture an essence of humanity but orient that feeling towards the artificial and otherworldly, conjuring a sense of synthetic beings in an unfamiliar space. Nexus invites viewers into a realm where cyborgs, AI and mythical creatures coexist, blurring the lines between what is real and what is imagined. As in Delaunay’s Orphist paintings, the ideas behind Hewett’s works are often austere, bordering on dystopian, at odds with their vibrant colour palette. In his latest body of work, the artist has experimented with a more monochromatic palette, evidence of the aforementioned need to develop one’s artistic practice alongside advancements in the external world. Ultimately, both artists’ work surveys the technology of the time, finding hope and beauty in an increasingly machine-led future; the celebratory use of colour and bold, geometric forms are the language by which they express this optimism.