Jonathan Yeo Portraits (11 September 2013 – 5 January 2014) will feature several new and previously unseen artworks, including the striking, six-foot-high oil-on-canvas portrait of Damien Hirst. The portrait painting, in which Hirst dominates the canvas, shows the artist sitting in a chair, dressed in a chemical dry suit and holding a mask: an outfit chosen to reflect the tools of his trade. Yeo and Hirst worked together when discussing the composition of the portrait, and Hirst’s commanding pose was chosen as an ironic reflection upon his perceived position within today’s art world.
Essentially it is a portrait by an artist of another artist known for doing completely different work: Damien is probably best known for his avant-garde sculptures and I, for my portraits. People assume we have completely contrary positions – of tradition and modernity, painting and the physical – however, artists are always interested in other artists, and how and what they achieve in their work. Damien, and his undeniable ongoing impact on the art world, is endlessly fascinating.
I wanted to reference elements of both who Damien is and what he has done. The mask in his hand helps create an ambiguity, suggesting possible military connotations, that he might be diving or confronting a riot. Even when we realise it’s a chemical dry suit, which he uses to make his formaldehyde works, it’s not entirely clear if he is making something or whether he is being pickled in one of his own tanks. This power balance is something of which we were both conscious through the creation of the portrait.
The pose was intended to reflect ironically his supposed status as dark overlord of the Contemporary Art scene and hopefully some observers will be reminded of Velasquez’s and Bacon’s Popes. Ultimately his faint smirk is the giveaway, both that he was a knowing collaborator in the choice of composition, and that his mischievous sense of humour is never far from anything he does.
While Hirst says of Yeo,
Like Turner strapping himself to the ship’s mast in order to create a true likeness of a storm, Yeo time and time again achieves what should be impossible: creating a true picture, an image or a glimpse, of people we think we know and of those we’ve never met.
Jonathan Yeo Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, 11 September 2013 — 5 January 2014. Admission free.