What Is A Portrait?
A 1967 work by Bruce Nauman stated that, ‘The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths’ – by exposing what is hidden, and obscuring what is there. More than two hundred years earlier, Joshua Reynolds wrote, ‘The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.’ As a society, we must value this statement to an extent for it is inscribed in stone above the entrance to one of our most important museums, the V&A in South Kensington.
Joe Strummer once said to me, ‘It’s not just who you are that’s important; a lot of people forget it’s what you represent that’s important too.’ A portrait is a representation … or is it? A good portrait wants to give you more than just a representation of someone: it wants to break the rules, to achieve the impossible by using such little means as ground-up pigment to capture something of a living person, to reach for the stars from the gutter. Van Gogh’s 1888 painting of a chair with his sad little pipe upon it is said to be a self-portrait. A chair as a portrait? Is that possible? In fact, we know that it is: the chair looks as paranoid as old Vincent was. Then again, according to that logic, you could ask what isn’t a portrait? Even wiping your arse becomes a self-portrait.
Jonathan Yeo makes portraits in a traditional sense. He captures something hidden and unseen in his sitters, giving the viewer that same jolt of recognition you get when spotting someone you know in the street, or your own reflection in the window of a moving bus. His work is nothing like photography, but it still feels like he’s presenting us with facts. This is so despite the unfinished quality of a lot of his pictures, which makes you believe he doesn’t have anything else up his sleeve (even though he does).
I don’t know what it is that makes us who we are, and I don’t know how when we look at each other’s faces we can somehow see deep inside one another, but I do know that Yeo’s portraits wrestle with these ideas. Like Turner strapping himself to the ship’s mast in order to create a true likeness of a storm, time and time again he achieves what should be impossible: creating a true picture, an image or a glimpse, of people we think we know and those we’ve never met. He gives us complete portraits made up of tiny fragments. Records of now, yet also moments upon moments, allowing the passage of time to be keenly felt or merely hinted at. Complete but also unhinged, his works make us both secure and uncomfortable. Looking at a portrait by Yeo makes us feel immortal, that we are here for ever – yet at the same time that for ever will pass and is just a fleeting instant.