Review: ‘Jonathan Yeo Portraits’

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 17.53.12By 

If you dream of being surrounded by the faces of the rich and famous then Newcastle’s Laing Gallery is evidently the place to be seen this winter.

As one of the world’s greatest portrait artists, Jonathan Yeo has painted some of the most famous faces around, from Sienna Miller and Helena Bonham Carter, to his newly unveiled portraits of Lily Cole (as Helen of Troy) and The Duchess of Cornwall, as well as a full-body self-portrait.

Having opened on 8 November 2014, the exhibition at the Laing Gallery furthers two similar exhibitions at both the National Portrait Gallery and the Lowry, with the additions of three previously unseen works, as well as a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at a series of portraits of artist Damien Hirst.

The exhibition is split between two rooms on opposite sides of the gallery, dividing his completed works from a smaller room filled with beautiful preliminary sketches and studies, as well as Yeo’s more controversial works: his 2007 collage portrait of George W. Bush composed of numerous cuttings from pornographic magazines being one of the most striking pieces of the collection. The room documents the processes behind Yeo’s work as he claims his inspiration from artists such as Picasso and Wyndham Lewis. Indeed, the chosen topic for his displayed studies is the controversial artist Damien Hirst, presented in an equally controversial rubber diving suit and gas mask within one of his own suspension tanks in Decay or Mother and Calf Divided-esque silence. It is both a fascinating and thought-provoking look into the methods of Yeo and his sitters.

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 17.53.47Across the hall the portraits are of an equally eerie calibre. Faces belonging to the likes of Grayson Perry, Michael Parkinson and Tony Blair stare from their frames with a sense of intense calmness, with Yeo choosing to use muted colours and warm tones. Their eyes are friendly and welcoming as the comfort at which Yeo places the sitter is evident. Using the power of distinct negative space and the juxtaposition of rough texture and soft flesh tones, the paintings appear almost unfinished by academic standards. It is this ‘rough around the edges’ attitude to portraiture that makes Yeo’s work so fascinating, alongside his flair for subtle provocation. One must congratulate the placement of the works within the space, as the smiling, almost cheeky, faces of Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch are placed opposite Baroness Doreen Lawrence.  Still, there is a softness to Yeo’s work that puts you truly at ease with the subjects.Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 17.54.40

One of the more striking pieces of the exhibition is a newly released work entitled ‘Photo Booth Selfie’. Much like his study of Damien Hirst, here he presents his own self-portrait within the confines of a thinly drawn box. Reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s Study of Pope Innocent X, there is a sense of dynamism to the work as pink paint is brushed haphazardly horizontally over the painting, with Yeo choosing to paint only his hands, feet and turned away face in one of the more realistic of his varied painting styles. Interestingly for a self-portrait there is very little ‘self’ portrayed. Instead it appears Yeo’s focus to be on the ‘selfie’ element, his studies of the stages of facial plastic surgery showing his interest in the material nature of modern life. The work is also, perhaps, a reference to the dying nature of his ‘trade’ as a portrait artist, with the emergence of new self-portrait technology.

Despite this, I fear Yeo may be wrong. While it is true that the ‘selfie’ has taken over popular culture, there will always be a place for the painted face. Yeo’s work is both stunning and gentle to the eye, his subjects sitting with such trust for their capturer. In a world of leaked photos and paparazzi, it is this relationship between artist and subject that, if anything, is longed for even more.

‘Jonathan Yeo Portraits’ runs at the Laing Gallery until 1st February 2015.

Images: Art Documentaries, Youtube 


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