Mayfair in London’s West End used to be an enclave of the conservative arts, home to auction houses, old master dealerships and the Royal Academy. In the last decade or so however, it has gone through something of a hand brake turn. Popping up in shiny, glass boxes, galleries such as Hauser & Wirth, Pace and David Zwirner now operate hugely successful spaces – and Mayfair is now, arguably, the world’s best permanent destination for contemporary art shopping.
Because of the success that Mayfair’s contemporary gallery scene has witnessed, it has become harder and harder to do something in the district that gets people’s attention. However, we think we have just witnessed a recipe for success in the form of Unit London. The 6,000 sq. foot space opened on the 29 of June at 3 Hanover Square, in what was the old Citibank office, next to Vogue House.
Covering two floors of steel and exposed brick, the gallery feels a bit like the bankers upped and left, making space in their wake for a new type of capital – cultural currency. In fact, Unit London was only founded in 2013 by Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt, with an inaugural pop-up exhibition in Chiswick, West London. The two friends, who are still in their 20s, then moved to Soho, then to Covent Garden, before making the quantum leap to Mayfair. Quite a bold move too, for two people so young, with no formal background in running a gallery.
‘In a fast-paced digital age where art is bought, sold and accessed increasingly through online channels, it may seem counterintuitive to be opening a prominent new physical gallery space in the heart of London. However, we believe that the future of the industry is in a seamless union of online and offline models, and this approach signals our intent to establish our artists and the Unit London brand as a leading London gallery,’ Said Kennedy and Burt. ‘We are thrilled to open our inaugural show in Mayfair with this much-anticipated body of work from one of the most innovative young painters working today.’
The artist the duo have chosen for the crucial stage-setting show, is South African painter Ryan Hewett. His portraits, which mix Bacon’s sense of figural abstraction with a millennial palette, seem like a safe, but strong bet, for a new generation of young, rich collectors.
The exhibition, entitled The garden, is actually Hewett’s third show with Unit London, but marks a transition by the painter to more ambitious, large-scale works; which he has conquered with ease. The largest of the canvases – which Hewett completed in his new Cape Town studio – measures 2 x 3 metres, and took him an impressive six months. In the show, it certainly feels like Hewett has upped his game, rising to the challenge Kennedy and Burt have set him, cementing his place as one of the most accomplished of a new breed of talented young painters.
As for the gallery’s longevity, well, it takes quite some guts to take on the more established galleries in this part of town – many of which have outposts around the world, eye-watering budgets and booths at all the major art fairs. However if the launch party was anything to go by, the pair behind Unit London know how to create a good buzz. Their slick curation, stellar roster of artists, dedication to being an experimental, global art platform, and polished media-friendly profiles, mean that we think these boys are going to be big.
Words by Tom Mellors
Ryan Hewett: The Garden at Unit London, 3 Hanover Square, London, until 28 July 2018