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 Surgery Series, begun in 2011, seeks to explore the current prevalent trend for plastic surgery and the quest for physical ‘perfection’. The concept behind the series first captured Yeo’s interest in 2010 around the time he was working on his Porn Collage Series, during which he was spending a considerable amount of time in Los Angeles, arguably the world capital of physical enhancement. As with Yeo’s portraits and Porn Collages, the Surgery Series continues to explore his long-held interest in physiognomy and notions of human identity. It also seeks to capture a particular moment in our evolution, where people are willing to undergo extraordinarily dangerous and expensive procedures in the pursuit of beauty, a practice that could well seem totally barbaric in the not-to-distant future as science and medicine continue to develop at such a dramatic rate.
After speaking with a plastic surgeon friend, Dr. Martin Kelly, Yeo started thinking about the role of the surgeon as artist or sculptor. 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 plastic surgeon is to sculpt and tweak people’s faces 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.”
Using the photographic archives kept by surgeons of their patients, Yeo also arranged to witness a surgical procedure at first hand, allowing him to fully engage with and witness this other form of ‘artistry’, which Yeo has described as, “like watching a master craftsman”. The painting that came out of this firsthand experience, Extended SMAS (Superficial Musculo-Aponeurotic System) Facelift, is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s portrayal of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, in its exposure of the fragility of the inner workings of the body and the shared respect between artist and surgeon in their mutual fascination of the human subject. The aesthetic Yeo developed was scientifically derived, but also contained a deliberate nod to the Old Masters, as he wanted the viewer to be conscious of how what is being practiced now relates to what was medically possible in the past.
Yeo was also conscious of the way people’s faces were changing with surgery and how it might impact his job as portraitist. The increasing trend to alter one’s face in order to achieve a perceived standard of perfection was starting to homogenize the way people looked, as well as often distorting a person’s facial expressions, which are so crucial to our instinctive and non-verbal communication. When painting portraits Yeo has always been engaged in decoding all the visual signals, particularly if they contradict what someone might be saying or doing.
The focus on facial surgery and breast operations came about as they were the procedures that were the most frequently discussed, as well as the two most obvious non-essential operations, which he felt told you more about the psychology of the patient and the pressures of society. However, rather than passing any form of judgment on whether cosmetic surgery is a good or a bad thing, the series is an exploration of the processes involved, what its tells us about an individual’s self image, perceived cultural ideals of beauty and the phycology behind endless search for perfection.