Artists Working FROM LIFE - Royal Academy of Arts Exhibition Catalogue 2017
At first glance, Jonathan Yeo’s painting studio seems a quite conventional portraitist’s set-up. An easel supporting a canvas stands at its heart, with a palette lying next to it, congealed piles of blackening, discarded oil paint at its edges. A comfortable chair sits opposite the easel, waiting for a subject, and lights for the sitter and the painter surround the ensemble. Nearby, Yeo has arranged what he calls ‘various objects and junk’, a mini cabinet of curiosities that he has collected to distract his sitters and make them less self-conscious.
Yeo is entirely self-taught, and began his career making fairly orthodox, accomplished portraits – he came to prominence for his commissioned picture of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007, and has since painted numerous leading public figures, ranging from royalty to actors, models and fellow artists. But now he rarely undertakes commissions and few paintings he makes in the studio today could be described as conventional. ‘I was, in retrospect, quite fortunate to have spent several years just doing portraits,’ he reflects, ‘because it does force you to be quite precise about things, and gives you an understanding of a genre from which you can then deviate. I’ve always liked seeing it as a starting point for experimenting and playing with people’s expectations.’
The idea of making work ‘from life’, and what that might mean, is at the core of Yeo’s practice. His paintings of people are informed by formal sittings and photographs shot in the studio. He welcomes different lighting for different sittings, from natural light pouring in from the side of his subjects to artificial light from above, so that ‘a sort of composite image’ emerges of the person, reflecting multiple moods and shifts in appearance. ‘The variation of light can be very helpful,’ he explains. ‘It helps make the painting come to life.’
But the final image is the result of what Yeo calls the ‘live experience’, which includes other, informal interactions. He speaks of how people relax at the end of a formal sitting, but the observation doesn’t end there. ‘You go out for lunch, and then you can look at them, just when they think that you’re no longer looking at them. That’s when you see things that are much more relevant.’ As he balances the formal and informal encounters, his paintings are increasingly concerned as much with what he omits as what he includes, with some elements of faces and figures precisely depicted and large areas of the canvas left more indistinct or inchoate. ‘I’ve always preferred images where you get different elements, particularly things that are very sharp and in focus and things that are very abstract, within the same picture,’ he says. ‘I have always thought that must be closer to how we actually retain images in memory, which is something that I have tried to demonstrate in the work; it wasn’t just an excuse for being lazy and not finishing certain bits.’
A recent series of self-portraits relate to body scans Yeo made of himself at Otoy, a Los Angeles-based graphics company that pioneers some of the most sophisticated 3D scanning techniques on the planet. The artist captured himself in minute detail and high definition, in a process that avoided some of the traditional limitations of self-portraiture, such as when a likeness is necessarily reversed when painted from a mirror, or flattened and set at a single angle when represented in a photograph. Yeo studied the scans to paint self-portraits from different perspectives and in a range of styles: one engages with the idea of an artificial intelligence, casting him as a kind of robot; another evokes digital backgrounds, and accentuates the contours of his face, by covering his head with a chequerboard pattern; and a third wittily plays on gaps in some of the scanned images by depicting his head almost as if it were a damaged ancient marble bust.
But the 3D scans offered even more possibilities when Yeo found out that they could be imported into the world of virtual reality (VR). Wearing an HTC Vive headset, he could observe a virtual representation of himself. ‘You can look at yourself, walk all the way around yourself, light yourself as if you were another person.’ He was invited to experiment with Google Tilt Brush software, using the HTC Vive handsets that allow artists to make marks within a virtual space – when a headset is worn, the handsets become palette and paintbrush. Yeo decided to make self-portraits with Tilt Brush; moving around the 3D scan of himself, he made a likeness of his likeness. ‘These marks made in a gestural or free way are then locked in there, in VR, absolutely precisely – you can then move around them and view them from different angles, as if you were viewing a sculpture. So it seemed obvious that I should export my self-portrait out of VR and into physical reality, where it could take up real space.’
Watch the video here. ‘From Virtual to Reality’
It is an entirely new artistic technique, but there is a characteristic twist in Yeo’s approach to this new dawn: his virtual self-portrait has been cast in one of the most ancient materials, bronze. ‘It just seemed logical to make it out of a material that is as old as any art material,’ he says. He suggests that ‘something that’s irrefutably permanent and eternal is really important’ for a project that is realised through virtual means. Yeo has collaborated on the bronze with Pangolin, the British sculpture foundry that works with leading international artists and is particularly associated with Damien Hirst. ‘It’s only in the last few months – weeks even – that it has been possible to extract and repurpose the VR files in this way,’ Yeo explains. ‘This development has also happened to coincide with the latest developments in 3D printing, which has made the casting possible.’
The resulting bust has a ‘solidity but also a lightness’, Yeo says, which evokes the fact that it has been made with Tilt Brush, a new medium that ‘has much more in common with painting than sculpture,’ he suggests. ‘I am not a sculptor, so you get a sense by looking at the work that it must have been made in a different way – a sense of movement and energy and light.’