Jonathan Yeo aims not to judge those who undergo plastic surgery operations. Yet his exhibition at the Bowes Museum, Skin Deep – the largest survey from his Surgery Series paintings to date – does not exactly glorify the process either. These works show a side of surgery that we do not normally see: not just how the patients look before and after, but also what happens to them during. In Skin Deep we therefore come face-to-face with the reality of plastic surgery, something far more extreme than we might otherwise have realised.
The first wall depicts a series of young, nameless and unconscious women prior to surgery. Exposed and unsightly, these women have air pipes protruding from their mouths and lines drawn on their skin ready to be cut open by surgeons. Lying in an unconscious and helpless state, they lack agency and personality, leading the viewer to wonder who really is in control. Although these women gave consent for the surgery, they are portrayed as passive drawing boards for the surgeon (or canvases for Yeo). The woman in Reduction Rhinoplasty (2011), with her eyes taped shut and something indistinct coming out of her mouth looks the least human and is particularly disturbing.
This dehumanising trend can also be seen in his sequence of paintings depicting breast surgeries. In these, viewers can easily forget that these breasts belong to real people, as none of them feature the person’s face. I am not entirely convinced that Yeo’s claim that he was interested in the psychology behind people’s decisions to have plastic surgery, as most of the individuals he depicts are strangers to him. Yeo painted from archival photographs and from sketches made whilst witnessing live surgeries when the patients would have been unconscious. The artist is clearly puzzled by the extreme lengths that people go through to achieve physical perfection, but if he has never met the patients, then how can he hope to uncover what their motivations are?
Even if Yeo is not especially interested in the individuals having the surgeries, his paintings nonetheless reflect on another thought-provoking topic: the artistry behind plastic surgery. In Neo-Plane Exchange I (2011), for example, the surgeon’s lines becomes analogous to sketches made by an artist or craftsman as they shape their material towards their desired result. His paintings of naked breasts reflect on a long tradition of nude paintings that depict the fantasy of an ideal, female body. The availability of plastic surgery, however, now means that the site of creation for fantastical perfection has shifted from the canvas to the real human body. Yeo considers the role-reversal that has taken place: it is now the scientific surgeon who is the creator of fantasy, whilst the artist portrays plastic surgery’s less glamorous reality.
Although Skin Deep mostly takes a hands-off approach to the people Yeo paints, there are some exceptions that prove to be the exhibition’s most moving works. In Rhytidectomy V (2012), for example, he portrays a patient just before she undergoes surgery, as the surgeon draws lines onto her face. While her face seems blank and inexpressive, a touch of fear is detectable in her eyes. One wonders whether this is really her choice, as surely no one would willingly go through with (and pay thousands of pounds for) such invasive surgery unless they really had to. Perhaps, then, this is a comment on how society’s impossibly high standards of beauty pressurise women into going to such extreme measures to achieve perfection.