Jonathan Yeo: the controversial yet charming artist

Jonathan Yeo is interviewing me – and oh, he’s good! “How’s Oxford?” he asks, with the ease of genuine interest. “What are you doing over the holidays?”

It’s almost impossible to dislike Yeo – he’s all twinkly eyes and charm, even down the phone. I wonder if Britain’s leading portrait artist, with a landmark exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and a major 2014 retrospective at The Lowry to his name, is actually most talented as a master in charm offensive, which might originate from the artist’s close observation of the games people play. “No matter how much [people] try to put a particular face on when you first meet them, at some point they let their guard down. But sometimes you’re dealing with manipulators of their own image – actors, models, politicians all fall into the same category – and you can’t always be sure with people who are so good at doing that whether what you are getting at the end isn’t just a very sophisticated performance.”

And what actors, models and politicians. They include Damien Hirst, Paris Hilton, and a glistening, naked, flagrantly pregnant Sienna Miller, as well as Tony Blair’s infamous official portrait. On painting celebrities, Yeo notes, “Obviously it’s harder when you’re dealing with people [whom] you tend to know a bit about, [but] I try to go in neutral and without any preconceptions.” 

I query whether portraiture is arguably a record of an interaction rather than a portrayal of the sitter. “All portraits are a document of the relationship between artist and subject.It’s more interesting if you can start with a relatively blank sheet and see how [the subject] comes across to you.” So is the success of a portrait related to how much you like the person? “The ones I feel like hanging onto are the ones where I’ve enjoyed the process because I’ve enjoyed their company. You don’t always have to like someone. Sometimes you haven’t particularly liked the subject, but you have had a strong enough reaction to them…to make something interesting of it. The ones that don’t work are the ones where you get bored along the way.” I am struck once again by his conviviality, how Yeo manages to be both figurehead of the contemporary artistic intelligentsia and naughty schoolboy, permanently perched on the edge of a chuckle. 

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He also defies art scene fads. “It seems obvious to me that fashions always change and people who’ve got something interesting to say will always have relevance.” A trustworthy schoolboy, then, with languid tones that are punctuated only by the sharp wit skimming beneath the surface. No wonder the establishment likes him.

Except, that is, when he decided to collage the President of the United States, amongst others, in hardcore porn. As you do. Apparently, however, it was not the response to a cancelled commission from Bush that the press made it out to be.

 “[The subjects] were very much public images and so they were trading off their reputations,” he explains, “I wasn’t trying to give any sort of insight into who these people actually were, it was a purely Warhol thing of using their reputation as public image and playing with that.” A social comment then? “They all in some way trade off sexuality or nudity or their attitude towards things. [The project] became just as much about the proliferation of pornography…five, six years ago the pervasion of pornographic and semi-pornographic images in the media and advertising seemed to be increasing, and so we had immediate access to them all.”

There’s a defiance to him too that can be seen in these pieces that writhe with eroticism and intensity. “I was aware that my style might adapt well to collage because of the way I tended to break things up on top of the painting anyway, and the obvious question therefore was where would you get a lot of skin going in the source material.”

It was a similar situation with a series of portraits documenting women before and after cosmetic operations, “I got distracted for a while by all the possibilities [for meaning] with that…working out how much you could read into that person’s motivations and self-doubt and compulsion to follow fashion or a certain way of being seen and what they were doing to themselves, rather than any kind of penetrating, psychological character study.”

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“As I’ve gone on, I’ve gotten more into letting in [other possibilities for meaning within portraiture], subtly layering complex narratives or wider ideas into a picture. I think it’s a shame not to try that, not to be a little bit ambitious.”

And then? “There was a logic to [the series], but I was very aware that it would be a playful thing as well…it’s fun then when people realize what they’re looking at and that changes their relationship with the picture as an object. And then you go into a whole new territory beyond painting, so that’s the fun of it really.”

We’re back with the witty schoolboy, tongue very much in cheek.