It is fitting that Jonathan Yeo should, for his part, answer any doubts about the potential vitality of contemporary portrait painting with the loosest of his works. In his portrait of Rupert Murdoch, Yeo captures his character with expressive strokes and bold patchworks of colour and then stops, leaving all else unfinished. It is a style he takes to an extreme, conjuring a human presence with the lightest of touches, in a depiction of his partner Shebah Ronay published as a lithograph. She emerges from the anonymous surface, distinct and individual with only a few, fluid, painterly strokes and a passage of grey pigment on the left hand side of her face bringing pictorial weight to the light, sketched form beneath. It is a confident assertion of the particular qualities of the human touch. Whereas a photograph captures all the visual information within a given frame, in, typically, the briefest of moments, the painted portrait is an articulation of information accumulated over many moments, information that the painter then sifts, selecting what is necessary to shape an image capturing the sitter’s essence. It is this that becomes the subject of the work, not the sitter’s appearance at one particular and potentially random moment. Such painted portraits are poignant records of beings in time and so uniquely human responses to the ephemerality of the human condition.
One of Britain’s best young portrait painters Yeo is, extraordinarily, almost entirely self-taught. A period of serious illness whilst he was studying for a degree in literature and film encouraged him to follow his natural love of painting. He taught himself the old fashioned way by studying and imitating the styles and methods of any artist that interested him. In this way he progressed through the twentieth century, rendering everything from still lives, landscapes and nudes in a variety of styles, from cubist, to surrealist. Living beside the old Tate on Millbank helped and Yeo would often start his days looking at works that grabbed his attention. Despite a clear affinity with artistic innovation, abstract and conceptual art never fascinated, it was always the figurative that moved him.
It is this unusual education that accounts for Yeo’s remarkable versatility. Even now, more than a decade after his first serious portrait, Yeo remains highly experimental, applying varying styles and techniques to fit his vision of a particular subject, an implicit acknowledgement of the subjectivity of his task. Much of the time he executes variations on the theme of realism, from the looseness of the Murdoch painting, the tighter, more classical feel of his portrait of Dennis Hopper (which bears a striking similarity to a Ingres portrait of a Customs Inspector*) to the slick, TV-image like photo-realism of his depiction of Minnie Driver and a recent study of George Bush. But Yeo is equally happy to stylise. His rendering of Erin O’Connor captures a quality of verticality and the touch of the Art Deco that he observed in her whilst preparing for the portrait. O’Connor’s elegant, counter-clockwise curving pose combines with judicious cropping stretches the image so that it fills the tall, rectangular canvas.
To evoke the unreality of images crafted for media consumption, he subjects one of his several portraits of Tony Blair to a Gerhard Richter-like blur. Occasionally such inventiveness extends beyond style. Yeo caused some controversy when he unveiled Proportional Representation, portraits of the three major British political party leaders in 2001, whose sizes were proportional to the number of seats they commanded in Parliament.
Despite their variety, all of Yeo’s works, as well demonstrating fluent painterly ability founded on acute draughtsmanship, share a contemporary focus on the character of the sitter to the exclusion of all else. The background, or the subject’s clothes are of little or no interest to Yeo. It is the expressiveness of the face that matters.
That first commission that set Yeo on his path, was of Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the brave and famous anti-apartheid campaigner. Though the work of a young painter still finding his way, it already fulfilled the primary function of portrait – the communication of personality. It was an achievement of a type that Yeo found irresistible, saying, “It’s incredibly rewarding when you get it right. As a subject another human being is one of the richest things you can engage with. There are so many mental and emotional responses you tap into. You can spend a lifetime exploring the possibilities.” In exploring those possibilities Yeo has artfully avoided art critic and poet Paul Valéry’s wry warning that for most of us observing is largely an imagining of what one is confidently expecting to see. Instead he looks at each of his subjects with a fresh eye and so brings each one his portraits to life.