Figurative oil painting has taken a back seat in recent decades. Buyers seem to have been more interested in neon, dead animals and digital art. Indeed, when Lucian Freud died earlier this year, the critics were quick to ask: “When comes such another?”
Odd they didn’t think of Jonathan Yeo, really, since he is one Brit who is taking life painting to a whole new level. But maybe they will now. For his latest project – on cosmetic surgery – has as much intellectual meat to it as lovingly-delineated flesh, and marks him out as the thinking man’s man with a beret and palette.
Jonny, 41, the son of former Tory minister Tim Yeo, curates the art collections of various Soho House establishments around the world. He made his name with portraits of world leaders and villains; Tony Blair, Rupert Murdoch and David Cameron among them. And he gained some notoriety for his porno-collage portraits of such figures as George Bush (made of tiny flesh-toned scraps of paper cut from top-shelf magazines).
But with the current exhibition, entitled You’re Only Young Twice, he wasn’t seeking to shock, so much as to react to the fairly recent phenomenon of re-sculpting the body and face, at a time when its place in public perception is changing. “I chose to concentrate on facial and breast procedures,” he says, “because they are the ones that are most rapidly gaining public acceptance.”
Rapidity is one of Yeo’s themes. The ‘quick-fix culture’, of course, but also the acceleration of attitudes. “Five years ago, everyone wanted the WAG look, with breasts like Jordan. Now they favour something more petite,” he says. “These sorts of shifts in taste used to take 50 years.”
Talking of 50, he has observed a dangerous trend among ladies in our age group. “It’s true there’s no better time for a facelift. The skin is looser, so the surgeon can lift it without touching the underlying muscle. However, his patients won’t look quite so good after a couple of years. You can’t keep yanking the skin in one specific direction when the muscles pull in different ways to create different expressions.
“If a woman has conned herself into thinking that, because of the operation, she somehow is younger, the surgery can become a bit of a fixation. That’s when the trouble starts. If they force it too much, they end up with that ‘startled’ expression.”
Delusion and illusion
Delusion and illusion are themes central to the new body of work. On the one hand, the surgeon’s felt-tip ‘cut’ diagrams on the patient’s bare skin look like exotic tribal decoration; on the other, they presage some sanguinary scalpel work and tell stories of future expectations.
Of those expectations Yeo says: “In 100 years’ time, when techniques have improved, people will be amazed that women went to such barbaric lengths to achieve an unconvincing parody of youth. I want to record that.”
The painter in him is clearly disturbed that some women want to become their own self-portraitists: “They’re trying to make real a flattering image that the painter used to render in oils.” Meanwhile, “The surgeon can’t fix the whole body, so some bits will always look older than others.” He prefers to study skin that has aged naturally.
What’s more, he adds: “Surgery affects the way the facial muscles work, and since human animals judge each other’s characters by thousands of tiny movements in the face, surgery can make our assessments harder.”
Nonetheless, he claims not to be judgmental. It would have been hard on him if he were: Yeo has spent significant chunks of the last four years researching his subject, gaining surgeons’ confidence, watching procedures, and choosing the best case-study photographs from which to work.
In the process, he has learned a lot about the psychology and demography of the trend: “In Brazil, it’s something to be proud of: people give their daughters boob jobs on their 21st birthdays. In Eastern Europe, they often want the work to look obvious, so people can see how rich they must be to afford it.”
No wonder he hasn’t finished mining this seam yet. Yeo plans one or two more exhibitions on the theme – “perhaps showing some of the more gruesome aspects” – before he returns to his bread and butter work. Currently outstanding are half-finished portraits of Stephen Fry and Kevin Spacey, and a series of Sienna Miller. “I find that the process drags out according to how much time I want to spend with the subject,” he says. One has to add that he’s pretty good company himself.
One could go on to advise readers to ‘watch this face’. But, felt-tipped or not, remember the boobs, too.
All pictures © 2011 Jonathan Yeo
You’re Only Young Twice is at the Lazarides Gallery, 11 Rathbone Place, London W1T 1HR from 9 December until 21 January