Jonathan Yeo’s Surgery Series, begun in 2011, seeks to explore the current prevalent trend for plastic surgery and the quest for physical ‘perfection’...
Jonathan Yeo’s Aesthetic Surgery Series, begun in 2011, seeks to explore the current prevalent trend for cosmetic surgery and the quest for physical ‘perfection’. The concept behind the series first captured Yeo’s interest in 2010 when he was spending a considerable amount of time in Los Angeles, arguably the world capital of physical enhancement. The Surgery Series continues to explore his long-held interest in physiognomy and notions of human identity. The paintings reveal many unseen aspects of this contemporary phenomenon, examining the reality of what happens in the operations, and inviting the audience to reflect on the lengths patients will go to in the pursuit of beauty, and the psychological pressures behind decisions to undergo surgery.
In dialogue with surgeon friends, Dr Martin Kelly and Dr Miles Berry, Yeo has investigated the role of the surgeon as artist or sculptor, and witnessing various operations first hand has allowed him to fully engage with this other form of ‘artistry’, which Yeo has described as, “like watching a master craftsman”. It occurred to him that in the same way artists in the pre-photographic era, such as Van Dyck, would often slightly improve their subject’s appearance, the job of the cosmetic surgeon is to sculpt and tweak people into a more idealized version of themselves. In the paintings that depict the lines drawn onto the skin of the patient, showing where the flesh will be cut, pulled and sculpted, the marks allude to the hand of the surgeon and the necessary preciseness that the procedures demand. On the creative links between artist and subject Yeo has stated:
“I’m documenting the artistry, as plastic surgeons really understand the structure of the human body. In the most fundamental way, they’re sculpting with bodies, and there’s an artistry, combined with a casual savagery, to the way they mark their patients before surgery.”
The paintings, which depict procedures such as facelifts, breast enhancements and gender reassignments amongst others, continue a tradition of artists such as Rembrandt and Leonardo de Vinci who studied the dissection of human bodies for their work. When Yeo started this series of work, almost ten years ago, he was conscious that, despite increasing frequency of surgical procedures and widening interest in the subject, it wasn’t something that had been tackled very much in art or popular culture, at least in an objective way. Originally coming at it from the perspective of a portraitist, Yeo has realized that it touches upon our individual psyche, and our wider culture and perceptions of beauty. The appetite for procedures changes over time, and the ability of the surgeons to perform more and more advanced surgery means that this is a fascinating subject to consider people’s motivations and concerns.