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Jonathan Yeo: You’re Only Young Twice

The infamous British portrait artist on examining the modern day role of the cosmetic surgeon through art

Famous for his portraiture work, Jonathan Yeo has painted faces such as Sir Michael Parkinson, Dennis Hopper, Nicole Kidman, Erin O’Connor, Sienna Miller, Rupert Murdoch, Prince Phillip, David Cameron and Tony Blair. It was this powerful following and Yeo’s sought after personal style that led to a commissioned portrait of the then US President George W. Bush. After being formally informed that his services were no longer required, Yeo responded with a cut copy portrait of Bush laden with pornographic undertones. This unplanned playful experiment and all too fitting public message inspired Yeo to produce a series of collages entitled ‘Porn In The USA’ that featured predominant American figures such as Tiger Woods, Paris Hilton and Hugh Hefner amongst the subjects.

In his latest exhibit, Jonathan Yeo continues the shift of direction in his work with You’re Only Young Twice. Focusing on the modern phenomenon of cosmetic surgery, these paintings examine the role of the cosmetic surgeon, and the nature of their patients, with a subtle hint to art history in the work’s sculptural narrative and architectural form. Dazed talked to Yeo about how his experience with cosmetic surgery has affected his fascination with human form. 

Dazed Digital: Moving on from 'Porn In The USA', how and why were you drawn to cosmetic surgery as a focus for your work?
Jonathan Yeo:
As someone who spent years looking at the surface of people in general, and faces in particular, I'd always had a curiosity about the workings underneath. The idea for these paintings came about four years ago before I was doing the porn collages. But what really galvanised me into action was spending the summer of 2010 in LA and seeing so many people with near identical faces and bodies. In a way, there's a similar urge to that of the porn show that is to shine a spotlight onto a phenomenon that is creeping into new aspects of our world. 

DD: You spent 18 months observing cosmetic work. What observations did you make about the process and what do you think are the biggest misconceptions about people who undertake cosmetic surgery?
Jonathan Yeo:
I think there's a self-delusion that you can somehow stop or even rewind the ageing process at will. Having watched some amazing surgeons at work, there can clearly be a benefit in doing a procedure such as a facelift just once. But the problem many people have is they can't stop there. It becomes an addiction and each time they go back for another fix it becomes less successful. The way we read faces is so much more complex than counting wrinkles. Eventually it reaches the point where they don't look any younger, they just look like someone who's had a lot of work done. 

DD: What is the role of cosmetic surgeons in contemporary society?
Jonathan Yeo:
I think they combine several roles. Aside from the obvious medical role and the skill required to undertake such precise surgery, they also have to be able to visualise the changes to a human form in the way a sculptor would. On top of which the best ones have to be sensitive to the increasingly fast changes in body fashions that their patients expect them to be aware of and follow. So they are juggling a variety of roles while also having to justify themselves to the more skeptical parts of the public audience. 

So I'm sympathetic towards them and fascinated by what they do. But at the same time worried by the way some unscrupulous practitioners can mess people's lives up by botching operations or talking patients into procedures they don't need.

DD: What links, if any, did you draw between the nature of the artist and that of the cosmetic surgeon?
Jonathan Yeo:
I think there's a lot of overlap. In a way, the cosmetic surgeon has taken on the role which would have been played by a painter or sculptor in the past - i.e. helping the subject resemble their notion of ideal beauty. 

DD: As an artist synonymous for portraits of high profile figures, how has your depiction of the anonymous human form and the desire for aesthetic improvement influenced you both personally and creatively?
Jonathan Yeo:
It's all pretty recent - I've done most of these pictures over the last 4 months - so it's hard to know exactly how the experience will affect the other areas of my work. But undoubtedly watching facelift operations had a profound effect on me and were - literally - highly revealing about the inner workings of the human face. So it certainly won't make me any more likely to undergo unnecessary surgery any time soon. But with any luck it might improve the way I look at faces from the other side in future. 

Jonathan Yeo, You’re Only Young Twice; Lazarides Gallery, 9 December - 21 January 2012