VISION: YVONNE TODD
Lara Wyatt discusses subversive fashion with one of New Zealand’s most prominent art photographers on the eve of her biggest exhibition to date
Lara Wyatt talks to provocative art photographer Yvonne Todd on the eve of the biggest exhibition of her career
It was a freshly opened tub of margarine, a photograph, and the words ‘Creamy Psychology’ scribbled underneath that lead to the naming of Yvonne Todd’s latest exhibition, currently open at City Gallery Wellington. The malformed knob of margarine, left when the machine filled the container, lingered on the top of the unscathed substance, and once Todd had snapped the shot and noted it in her visual diary, she didn’t think much more about the name until she was asked to title the show — Yvonne Todd: Creamy Psychology.
Todd has worked with the exhibition’s chief curator, Robert Leonard, to put together a selection of around 150 of her photographs made since the late 1990s. The pair started off by creating three piles of images — the yes, no, and maybe piles.
“I tried to discreetly slip some of the ‘no’ photos into the ‘yes’ pile — a couple of those managed to sneak through,” Todd says.
For the first time at City Gallery Wellington, a solo exhibition will span both levels of the gallery, a feat Todd recognizes as being quite an achievement for her work.
“To be the first artist with a solo exhibition that fills the entirety of City Gallery is a significant undertaking, but I’ve experienced an enthusiastic response to my work in Wellington since I first exhibited there in 2002. It feels like the right place for the show … I haven’t had a solo show on this scale before, so it’s a momentous event in my career,” the photographer explains.
Due to the intricate nature of Todd’s work, Leonard says giving over both floors of the gallery was necessary to enhance the exhibition and take it to its full potential.
“It’s a complex body of work. I wanted to explore it in detail, and I needed space to do that. The show is epic. I thought this would enable new readings of Todd’s work — she’s a great artist, and funny. There won’t be other chances to see this much work brought together.”
Admitting to enjoying both sophisticated and trashy culture and entertainment, Todd says she’s interested in finding convergences between the two in her work.
“Often I’ll think about something compulsively and photograph it so I don’t have to think about it any more. I can also be inspired by obscure glimpses and fragments, things that resonate in my memory and imagination … it could be something I see on TV, an advertising circular, or a conversation overheard at a shopping mall food court.”
The product of these inspirational moments and findings leads to what Leonard describes as pictures which exemplify a knowing artifice, a creepy airlessness, and a tragic glamour. “She is famous for her portraits of female characters who seem to suffer from some malaise, explicit or implicit. Her cast includes cosmeticians, cripples, anorexics, dowdy Christians, tragic heiresses, and cult
members. They’re nostalgically styled using costumes, wigs, make-up, even false teeth.”
Todd has referred to the nature of her work as being subject to her repulsion/thwarting system. “I have an ongoing tussle with being a conformist and nonconformist, and this seems to manifest in my work. When people experience my photographs I want to be their friend, but make them uncomfortable at the same time.
“I’m offering up convincingly ‘mainstream’ images that are somehow disconcerting and unpalatable. There’s an element of the inappropriate pervading some of the work.”
As Todd’s career has progressed and her body of work has grown, a wider array of subjects — both people and objects — have been incorporated into her photographs.
“In 2008 she began photographing men, developing a series of portraits of imagined corporate executives, specialists, and consultants, as one might find in annual
reports and company prospectuses. Her latest series is of actual vegans,” Leonard says.
Standout images for Todd have been of a different subject matter altogether. “Some of my all-time favourite images feature plastic plumbing pipes,” she admits.
Costumes and sets have always been a part of Todd’s vision for her portraits. She says she was particularly intrigued by the photographs of her Edwardian ancestors that she would “obsessively scrutinize” in her grandparents’ photo albums. Once Todd would trawl through Auckland’s second-hand stores collecting costumes, but this has changed since offerings have become more generic.
“I have about 20 really interesting costumes that I’ve collected over the past decade to use in my photographs
… I’ve reduced my purchasing as it was spiralling out of control, but I will still buy something occasionally if I feel I must have it. My more recent work has included costumes that I’ve designed and had made out of upholstery fabric.”
Describing Todd as a “frock fetishist”, Leonard says creating a frock room to address her love of costumes was Todd’s idea. A number of her vintage designer costumes have been extracted from her images and will be showcased on mannequins in the frock room, which has been curated by Claire Regnault from Te Papa. Todd has been known to purchase clothing previously owned by celebrities, including Whitney Houston and Liza Minnelli.
The Yvonne Todd exhibition experience wouldn’t be complete without the addition of a sources and influences room, where a variety of material by other photographers who inspire Todd, including Diane Arbus, Morton Bartlett, and Mike Disfarmer, will be showcased as well as a collection of Victorian carte-de-visite photographs (small portraits), visual diaries, and various books that highlight Todd’s specialized interest within her practice.
A series by Gilbert Melrose taken at a children’s fancy dress ball back in 1957 will also be included.
“I wanted to celebrate Gilbert and his career as a photographer … He was an impatient photographer, like me, who felt compelled to document anything that was a visual spectacle,” she says.
A second cousin of Todd’s, Melrose had a “wacky, awkward, and strange” style of shooting that drew her to incorporating his work into her own after he died.
It was the areas of repetition and accumulation, such as brown animals — wombats, koalas, kangaroos in Australian zoos — that intrigued Todd. There was also a set of cow photos, each animal named on the slide, and endless documentation of small-town floral festivals in the 1970s “where flower arrangements were inspired by the signs of the Zodiac or LSD”.
However, the work of Melrose that will be exhibited in the City Gallery will be the fancy-dress ball and a portrait of his sister Joan, wearing a dress and apron, sitting atop a horse in a paddock on the family farm.
The show covers off a huge range of work and inspirations, and there is no set chronological order to experiencing the exhibition. Recurrent subjects have been clustered together, and other more uniform series sit together as well, with an audio guide provided for those who want to expand their knowledge of selected works.
“There is a sense of structure as well as some surprising juxtapositions within the spaces,” Todd explains.
No special prior knowledge is needed to interpret Todd’s creations, but finding humour in certain aspects of the show, and finding something relatable, is what she hopes exhibition goers will be able to experience.
“Some of the images are decidedly uncomfortable, some are comical, and some are tragic. Collectively they embody my perspective as an artist; how I see the world and my desire to re-examine and re-address the conventions of photography.”
Creamy Psychology is on now and will run until March 1, 2015, at City Gallery Wellington. Visit citygallery.org.nz for more information on the exhibition, and visit ervon.com for what Todd describes as essentially an archive of her creations.
Yvonne Todd, Takapuna, 2009, C-type photograph, 520x424mm
Yvonne Todd, Retired Urologist, 2009, C-type photograph, 1000 x820mm, from Wall of Man
Yvonne Todd, Self Portrait as the Corpse of Sandra West, 2008, light jet print, 760x620mm
Yvonne Todd, Mulkie, 2010, light jet print, 157x125mm
Yvonne Todd, Gynaecology, 2006, light jet print, 1400x1027mm
Yvonne Todd, Morton, 2012, C-type photograph, 110x865mm, from Seahorsel
Yvonne Todd, Pipe Study, 2008, light jet print, 1580x1210 mm
Yvonne Todd, The Greasy Harpist, 2010, light jet print, 1160x939mm
Yvonne Todd, Valley Candle, 2008, light jet print 159x120mm, from Saints
Yvonne Todd, Vegan Portrait 16, 2013, 800x630mm, from series Ethical Minorities
Yvonne Todd, Self Portrait as Christina Onassis, 2008, light jet print, 350x285mm
Yvonne Todd, Limpet, 2005, light jet print, 1000x740mm, from series Vagrant’s Reception Centre
Yvonne Todd, Ethlyn, 2005, light jet print, 440x330mm, from series Vagrants’ Reception Centre
Yvonne Todd, Frenzy, 2006, light jet print, 1080x1350mm