Giuseppe Arcimboldo had a very unique take on a portrait. Instead of creating a straightforward likeness, the Renaissance painter liked to make faces out of things. His countenances were made from flowers, vegetables, fruit, piles of books, twisted tree roots. Sometimes the results would veer towards caricature; at other times, they were delightful allegory. But underlying his work was the sheer genius to play with how a face was represented. Jonathan Yeo’s collage work somehow grows out of this heritage of trompe l’oeil games. Instead of comforting swabs of paint, you’re staring at a writhing mass of flesh and pornography. He could have made collages with other photographic images. The fact he uses pornography, however, is vital. ‘It’s about dealing with a material that has resonance; it’s more powerful.’
The collages originally began with a large dose of humour. Yeo’s first intention had been to use porn to create a portrait of anti-smut campaigner Mary Whitehouse – but George Bush soon seemed a better choice for ridicule. ‘I felt this would be a fitting comment on the breathtaking hypocrisy of Bush and the extreme right in America. These people have no moral objections to sending people to die in unnecessary wars, or pursuing environmental policies that will cause chaos for our kids, yet they get upset about photos of people having sex.’
There is an element of shock in the work, that surprise of discovery that lies between satirical comedy and discomfort. The work plays with the viewers’ personal boundaries and feelings towards porn. Yet the collages use pornography in a very unsexual way. This is nothing about getting the viewer aroused. Arguably pornography itself has little to do with real sex but more to do with objectification, with the act of looking, and with power. In Yeo’s work the photographic bodies are used formally – transformed into a palette of colours, textures and tones. Yet before the pornography becomes completely abstracted we are presented with details of sexual acts: a blow job here; an erect penis there. The fact they are invisible at first somehow heightens their potency.
There’s something about the action of cutting up images that adds a sense of violence or unrest. Pornography and collage just fit.
In Yeo’s work, magazine cuttings are used in a similar way to paint. They often become abstract – though pornographic details do rear their provocative heads. They are placed to echo brushstrokes and slabs of colour. The skin-toned paper shapes make the body appear almost sculptural, like the paintings of Lucian Freud, Jenny Saville or even Cubism. The pictures look more finished and painterly than rough-and-ready cut and paste.
Often the nudes Yeo creates in his collages are demure. This cliché is intentional. The coyness is used to contrast with the immediacy and confrontation of porn imagery.
Painter John Currin’s work makes an interesting counterpoint. He has created a series of paintings of explicit sexual acts, with positions and angles taken straight out of hardcore. Yet underlying the initial shock or delight at seeing images of masturbation, bondage and penetration is the unavoidable appreciation of Currin’s technically brilliant handling of paint. Here we have pornography but on closer inspection we are hit by craftsmanship. In Yeo’s work, we are lulled by craftsmanship but on closer inspection are hit by porn.
Pornography is largely consumed privately, so sticking it in a very public art space is guaranteed to create reactions. How porn represents the sexual body is often very different from erotic art. These photographs are made purely as a sexual aid. They play with aggression and submission. They are inextricably linked with money, objectification and power. The pretence of voyeurism is vital to keep up their sense of arousal. The rise of digital culture and the Internet in the past decade has hugely influenced how we look at porn. In the West, we are bombarded with sexual images and pornographic spam. The body has become something impersonal and publicly consumed.