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REVIEW | You’re Only Young Twice | the intimate topography of bodies transformed | Jonathan Yeo at Lazarides Gallery

Persistently controversial, Jonathan Yeo’s new exhibition at Lazarides Rathbone walks a tightrope of positive / perverse that renders the viewer simultaneously enlightened and dismayed.

The first solo show since 2008, “You’re Only Young Twice” is a collection of photo-real oil paintings clustered around the theme of plastic surgery. The diptychs are an assault of before and after surgery pictures, individually each dissolves dispassionately into the impersonal, but as a whole the enduring impression is of an intimate topography of sad bodies honed and perfected with all the delicacy of the surgeon’s black marker highlights.

If, as Wittgenstein said, “the human body is the best picture of the human soul”, the process witnessed here  hints at bodies and souls that are fraught with opposition, at war with themselves in the throes of the systematic assault of physical vanity laced with fear. The diptych structure of the show not only allows for a before / after view, the loose paintings, like court sketches, give the air of quick renderings where the witness throws down the evidence of the process. A kind of censoring takes place in the ghostly gap between the before and after, where an assumed absent third would have captured the moment of transformation itself. This substitution of the diptych for the triptych allows the collection to pivot ambiguously around the morality of plastic surgery, the capitulation behind the explosion in the prevalence of procedures is under scrutiny, the individuals and the act is not.

The ambiguity of the collection is evolved with a lingering sense that the related pieces must have been completed years apart, so transformed are the bodies they depict. The blood and scars are absent, again giving momentum to the accumulated impersonality that tugs against the intimacy of the portraits. This is an intimacy accomplished in a tenderness of painting and a softness of palette, as well as through a repeated “fade to blank” that gestures at sketch book caught moments. The sense is of a painter marking the canvas emotionally not rationally, revelling in the joy of flesh and the act of painting, rather than a conscious engagement in the documention of a surgical procedure, or a meditation on the morality of the situation.

The enduring effect of the show is a kind of nostalgia, like antique maps there is a timeless quality of something lost, both morally and physically, the issues posed seem like they belong to the past. The revelatory aspect charted in the collection documents the extent of surgery, but a peak behind the surgeon’s curtain maps the possibilities offered by the industry and that knowledge goes a long way to unsettle and inspire towards a whole new world of aspiration / dissatisfaction, with radical new potential to perfect. If the body is the best picture of the human soul, Jonathan Yeo documents the contradiction implicit when the possibility to make the body the best it can be is opened up, as it interminably evolves a permanent and inevitable assault on the self through a new and permanent dissatisfaction.

The exhibition runs at Lazarides Gallery, Rathbone Place until January 21st

Rachel Bennett

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