From Blair to Bonham-Carter: The Lowry exhibits Jonathan Yeo's portraits of performance and power

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From Blair to Bonham-Carter: The Lowry exhibits Jonathan Yeo's portraits of performance and power
Damien Hirst was present at the inauguration of the exhibition.

MANCHESTER.- Britain’s renowned portrait artist, known for stirring images of Damien Hirst, Tony Blair, Kevin Spacey and Sienna Miller, exhibits many of his most famous works, including new paintings of leading contemporary figures.

Jonathan Yeo, who painted the first official portrait of former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, shows a range of new and existing work at The Lowry, Salford between Sat 15 March – Sun 29 June 2014.

Portraits demonstrates the depth of Yeo’s work in a selection spanning two decades, exploring a diverse range of personalities from the worlds of performance, politics, fashion and art, including Rupert Murdoch, Helena Bonham-Carter, Idris Elba, Dennis Hopper, Erin O’Connor and Stephen Fry.

At the opening of The Lowry exhibition, several new portraits were unveiled for the first time, including well-known performers and artists with an international standing. The Lowry is the first gallery to show the celebrated 2008 portrait of Tony Blair wearing a red memorial poppy, since it was first commissioned by Lincoln’s Inn, where Blair trained as a barrister.

A self-taught artist, Yeo began drawing and painting while undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s disease in his early-20s. A commission from the House of Commons in 2001 – a triptych of the three party leaders campaigning in that year’s general election, Tony Blair, William Hague and Charles Kennedy – first brought the artist to prominence.

A recent painting of the artist, Damien Hirst, is amongst the notable works exhibited, showing him dressed in a chemical suit, and sat in a tank similar to those in which he famously submerges cows, sharks, and sheep, in formaldehyde. Another artist and Turner Prize-winner, Grayson Perry, features in a portrait as his alter-ego, Claire, surrounded by the pink fabrics of a child’s bedroom. They are typical of Yeo’s thoughtful and innovative explorations of both the public reputations and private personas of his famous subjects.

Jonathan Yeo said: “I’m especially excited to exhibit at The Lowry because of the strong affiliations the city and region have with some of the most innovative and influential British artists, performers, and writers, which is something I consistently return to in my work. Also Lowry, as an artist, has been an influence on my own practice, since as far back as childhood. I hugely admire his vision and depiction of quotidian scenes.

“I always feel it’s important to exhibit in new places. It’s fascinating to see the responses of different audiences to the work: from Nottingham, to LA, to Berlin, to Salford. Faces often signify different things in different cultures and the personalities in these paintings provoke widely varying reactions around the world.

The arrival of digital avatars, selfies, and the general proliferation of photography in contemporary culture means that people are more aware than ever of the variations in how they’re depicted. The fact that a painting takes hours, days, or weeks to generate, and from a series of impressions rather than a photographic instant, inevitably makes for a more layered image and the sense of a living, changing individual.”

In stark contrast to the portraits of talented and influential figures, Yeo’s paintings of patients undergoing cosmetic surgery procedures are revealing studies into the pursuit of beauty, viewing the surgeon’s role in parallel to the artist, reconstructing and reimagining the face of his subjects. Yeo uses his brush to set the – sometimes uncomfortable – scene of someone under anaesthetic and, in doing so, questions the lengths people go to, to create physical perfection and what perfection ultimately is.

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and education activist who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013’, sat for Jonathan Yeo in 2013. The resultant portrait is the first to be painted of the 16 year old campaigner. Studies for that portrait are amongst a series of sketches, photographs and development paintings included in The Lowry exhibition to provide further insight into Yeo’s working processes.

Michael Simpson, Director of Visual Arts and Engagement at The Lowry, said: “In an age that values the quick and the instant, with portraits snapped in milliseconds on our mobile phones, it is satisfying to spend time in front of Jonathan’s insightful and considered paintings. You sense they reveal more about his subjects the longer you spend with them, and being in the company of some of the most iconic international figures of recent years is a hugely rewarding experience.”

Jonathan Yeo, Portraits is organised by the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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