Yvonne Todd: Vile and delicious - Art Collector

Issue 61, July - September 2012

Despite the oddness and awkwardness of the subjects in Yvonne Todd's works, it's impossible to look away. It's this quality, writes Gillian Serisier, that characterises her work more than any other.

New Zealand artist Yvonne Todd imbues her work with an extraordinary sense of the odd. As the Institute of Modern Art’s Robert Leonard has pointed out, where Hiroshi Sugimoto breathed life into his photography of Tussaud’s wax works, Todd mannequinises the real with the beauty school repertoire of masking: wigs; makeup and costume. She is also not above slapstick, such as in the oversized false teeth protruding from the expectantly parted lips of the heroine in Frenzy. Says Todd of her tartan taffeta clad heroin: “When I was a child I drew people with enormous teeth, I don’t know what the Freudian implications are but they always resonated with me.”

It is almost impossible to not entertain a narrative when viewing Todd’s work. This is due largely to the undercurrent of her fascination with the Sweet Valley High novels. “The cover art intoxicated me. I call it visual cocaine. The characters were all archetypes – the town drunk, etcetera. It was pretty basic stuff, but being privy to the insider information makes them intoxicating,” she says. It is also near impossible to not feel slightly discomfitted by her work, which pivots on the archetypal glamour of big hair and pancake makeup that is less specific to a time than a type. There is, however, something frozen in the gaze, as though the sitter is trapped within the shell of externalised beauty. Compounding this is the corresponding repertoire of flaws that each portrait contains, ranging from bared-teeth smiles to looks of disapproving self appraisal.

Todd’s work is not a straightforward equation of subject as other. Rather, Todd allows her women a position that questions our presumed right of scrutiny. Goat Sluice, for example, defies the viewer to look. And, it is here that Todd’s ability to freeze a moment of absolute artifice transforms the phatic communion, much as a Harold Pinter pause heralds a paradigm shift of understanding. The gaze is directed back at the viewer with the realisation that any warmth is pure invention, and yet we continue to look at what gallerist Ryan Renshaw describes as “both vile and delicious”.

Her latest body of work, Seahorsel, extends the roles both of viewer and photography. Where she has previously captured expression as a frozen moment, with Seahorsel movement is devoid of emotion, yet solidly fixed within the forms of eurhythmic movement and early experimental dance. Todd, who has based her poses on a range of ideas on movement including Eadweard J Muybridge’s animations, Martha Graham’s dance, Marcel Marceau’s mime and Richard Avedon’s photography, explains: “My idea was to create an imaginary world connected through nonsensical action, a confused state, not specific poses.”

As always, costume plays a significant role and for the Seahorsel series Todd has continued the beige and cream neutralities of her palette, but without the glamorous gowns of past series, where beaded confections once owned by Lucille Ball and Whitney Houston confirmed the fantasy of her subjects. Despite the lack of glamour, the costumes in this series are rather wonderfully peculiar, with tan unitards, velvet capes, tattered lace and cheap curtaining augmented by bulky neck braces. “The high glamorous stuff I have very specific taste in, with very specific designers that have become entrenched in a deliberate manner. For Seahorsel, I wanted to do something different so I used a strange mix of velvet ponchos and velvet goitres.”

The goitres themselves evolved from Todd’s practice of drawing figures over and over in preparation. They also have roots in the idea of a swollen neck as the antithesis of the ballerina’s swanlike neck. She also, in Todd-like fashion, called them goitres simply because she liked the word. Interestingly, despite the velvet goitres (made by her mum) and the absence of glamorous dresses, these works are every bit as steeped in the desirability of the Utopian dream informing these eras of dance. Glue Vira, in particular, has a certain suggestive element manifest in the forward thrust of her subject’s breast and curved hip while clad in pantyhose fabric. Conversely, Todd thinks of this figure as far less elegant. “She reminds me of an ostrich, but I like the fact that the images are ambiguous. It’s important that the viewer can make their own narrative.”

Born in Auckland in 1973, where she continues to work and live, Todd has built a steady reputation. Her exhibition with Brisbane’s Ryan Renshaw Gallery will be her first foray into the Australian commercial gallery market. She is, however, no stranger to our shores with a large tapestry work commissioned by the Queensland Art Gallery in 2008. Her work was also well received in the 17th Biennale of Sydney in 2010. •

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