Aesthetic Surgery: Portraitist Jonathan Yeo on His New Plastic Surgery Paintings

Courtesy the artist
Detail of Jonathan Yeo’s “Capsulotomy and Implant Exchange Symmetrisation,” 2011
by Coline Milliard, ARTINFO UK
Published: December 19, 2011
Jonathan Yeo’s sitters may include Dennis Hopper, Nicole Kidman, and David Cameron — and he might be currently working on portraits of Sienna Miller and Kevin Spacey — but the artist has always been up for unsettling his polished image of society painter. In 2007, he produced a portrait of George Bush collaged together from clipping from porn mags. The U.S. Republican party called it “extremely distasteful,” but it was an instant hit — and similar portraits of Tiger WoodsParis Hilton, and (infamously) Sarah Palin shortly followed.Yeo’s newly open exhibition at London’s Lazarides Gallery reveals yet another radically different aspect of the painter’s multifarious practice. For “You’re Only Young Twice,” Yeo has turned to cosmetic surgery for subject matter. The show features images of bodies mapped out for the scalpal, before-and-after mammary augmentation diptychs, and unconscious patients on operation tables. Speaking to ARTINFO UK recently, the artist explained the background of the new series.

How did you go from portraits to plastic surgery? It seems to be quite a jump.

It some ways it is, but it’s also kind of logical. I’ve always been interested in faces and bodies. Your job as a portraitist is to read faces and try to work out what they are communicating. Recently this has become much harder — the way people adjust their faces through cosmetic surgery is changing the way you instinctively interpret them. The work has gone from painting an individual, and making it about that person, to using portraiture as a subject to tell a contemporary narrative. We are dabbling in something that is complex and that we maybe haven’t understood the complete implications of. In one sense, my work hasn’t changed at all, in that I’m still painting faces and bodies. But in another sense, it changed a lot because it’s gone from being a personal thing to being a conceptual thing.

Unlike most of your portraits, these are people we wouldn’t recognize.

That’s right. As I have often dealt with celebrity in general, or celebrities in particular in the past, I was very keen to avoid using anyone who might be easily identified. I wanted this project to be more generic. And I didn’t want people to dismiss the paintings as being attention-seeking, whether because the person was well-known, or because the subject matter was too gruesome and explicit. I did go and look at some surgery, but in the end I wanted to avoid shock tactics. The subtlety of it is what I’m interested in.

A few surgeons allowed you in their practices. How did they first react to your idea?

It was complicated, and this is partly why this project has taken such a long time. I had the idea for it about three or four years ago. The problem was to convince surgeons to come on board. It first came out of a conversation with a friend of mine, a surgeon called Martin Kelly, but he died less than a year after we started talking about it. He was very young — it’s very tragic. The thing stalled for a while. Then I was lucky that three other surgeons understood what I was trying to do and were helpful. Through the original stuff I got via Martin, and through them, looking at their archive of material, talking to them, exploring what areas were interesting, and what areas I thought could have their stories told best through painting, I worked out what I wanted to do.

So you worked mainly from photographs?

Exactly. Once the thing was on the way, I also managed to get permission from a couple of people to go and see the actual operation being done, so I worked partly from my own photos as well — but I haven’t got to the stage yet of setting up an easel in an operation theatre.

The media coverage of these things  is very judgemental: it’s right, it’s wrong. Usually it’s slightly finger-wagging, “people shouldn’t be doing that, that’s cheating” kind of stuff — or the other extreme, with people completely sold on the idea, “what could be better than looking 10 years younger.” I was trying to avoid either point of view. This debate is a bit irrelevant really. The phenomenon is not going to go away now. So we might as well look beyond that and examine the consequences of it being around and developing very fast.

The surgeons are all very pleased about the way it turned out, but I didn’t talk to any of the patients directly. I was trying to keep that distance. It’s very different from what I do when I paint a person. Here I wanted to depersonalize the process. The narrative wasn’t restricted to that person. Each of the pictures was making a point about either a type of surgery, or a type of mentality behind it.

How do you think this experience is affecting, or has affected, the way you paint more straightforward portraits? Do you look at people slightly differently now?

It may be too early to say. I certainly found that going to watch a facelift as it actually happens was very exciting from the point of view of informing this body of works. But actually it’s probably more useful from the point of view of learning about how faces work. I spent years looking at the surface of people’s faces, and making assumptions and guesses about how things move and why, and where the muscles are and that kind of thing. To actually see all these little muscles pulled in different directions and see how the faces are constructed was a privilege really. Leonardo had to dig people up, or at least steal bodies to do it. To be invited and watch it on a living person was amazing. It makes me even more excited about the movement of faces, and communication of expression.

At the same time, I’m not in a particular rush to go back to doing those more traditional pictures. I’ve got Sienna [Miller] that I want to finish, and one or two other interesting ones, but I’m definitely seeing the current project as a exploration in several stages, and all I’ve done is the first stage of it. There are so many aspects of it that interest me, and not least the variations of it around the world, the different techniques of surgery, and the different things people want done. In the far East, where surgery is a much more taboo subject, one of the thing that happen is that they go to Korea and have their eyes made slightly more Western-looking. In the Middle East they often have their noses done. One of the dangers of cosmetic surgery and how easy it’s becoming is that we all start to take on a homogenized look, and iron out our racial variations as well as our individual idiosyncrasies, which would be a big shame.

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