Entering Yvonne Todd’s parallel universe

With 150 works and extensive contextual material, including a gown room and old family photographs, Yvonne Todd’s survey exhibition lays bare the sources, influences and inspirations behind the work.
Yvonne Todd, Amanda

Creamy Psychology is the offbeat yet strangely evocative title of Yvonne Todd’s upcoming survey exhibition, opening at—and totally filling—City Gallery Wellington on 6 December 2014.

Like many of Todd’s photographs, the title is alluring, ambiguous and slightly repulsive. It manages to combine a sense of the embarrassing, effluvial body with the mysterious workings of the mind and the quirks of personality that psychology seeks to understand. When we look at Todd’s photographs of people, landscapes and objects, firstly we’re confronted with their obsessive physical details—a single strand of hair in the blonde wig worn by a sad-eyed young woman clutching a white towel (Amanda), a glassy drop of water falling from the toe of a white sock (Wet Sock), the oily petroleum film coating a puddle (Methylated Puddle). Then we’re discomfited with disturbing details that completely destabilise our initial readings—imperfect teeth that mar the otherwise pleasing features of the blonde clutching the tabby cat in Goat Sluice, which has been chosen as the cover image of the substantial book published by Victoria University Press to accompany Todd’s exhibition.

Yvonne Todd, Clammy Pipes, 2006, c-type print, 88 x 66cm. Courtesy of the artist

We’re also struck by the unbearable sense that there’s really no difference between an arrangement of black plumbing pipes (Clammy Pipes) spritzed with droplets of water, as if for an advertising shot, and Todd’s photographs of young women—both humans and objects appear against plain studio backdrops, hermetically sealed off from the outside world in a claustrophobic environment of the artist’s own making. This airless atmosphere is accentuated by the models’ oddly stiff and immobile poses, their impassive, unreadable expressions and the chilly tones of the photographs themselves. Todd’s photographs are meticulously constructed artifices in which props and costumes suggest tenuous narratives; her cast of characters often appear brittle, disappointed and downtrodden rather than heroic. They include ice queens, eccentric heiresses, dowdy Christians, anorexics, disabled women, elderly corporate statesmen, and most recently—vegans. Within Creamy Psychology is Todd’s new series ‘Ethical Minorities (Vegans)’: 17 portraits of vegans, including one of Todd who is herself a vegan.

Yvonne Todd, Gunther, 2010, c-type print, 140 x 110.7 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Ivan Anthony Gallery

As far as single artist survey shows in New Zealand go, Creamy Psychology is enormous—it includes about 150 works and a raft of supporting material. There’s a ‘sources’ room, with television and film clips, books, magazine spreads and old family photographs that have been influential; a video room showing two of her own videos: Denim Seagull and Smoke Emitters; and photographs by other artists whom Todd admires—among them Diane Arbus, Mike Disfarmer and the seminal German artist couple Bernd and Hilla Becher. A gown room, curated by Claire Regnault from Te Papa, features a selection of spectacular beaded and sequinned gowns—some by famous designers, others with interesting backstories (one belonged to Whitney Houston), that Todd has purchased online and photographed her subjects in. These are displayed alongside the photographs, taking the exhibition into the sculptural realm, which is appropriate given that Todd has often said she longs to escape photography’s flat plane (appropriately her essay in the book accompanying the exhibition is titled “Do I even Like Photography?”). Creamy Psychology’s extensive contextual material sheds new light on the sources of an artist who has piqued much speculation on the links between her personal life—an indifferent high school record, boring, tiresome day jobs—working in a bicycle factory, a wig shop, as a wedding photographer, and in a downtown Auckland strip joint—and her art.

When I interviewed her for this story we sat in her sunny living room and talked about her three cats, her family photographs, the boredom of growing up in Takapuna (we both did), and the upcoming exhibition. All the while Todd scrolled through images on her laptop, showing me old black and white family photographs that have lodged in her brain and then found echoes in her work. It was fascinating to see a photograph of six sombre-looking, white-haired gentlemen, including her great-great-grandfather, who were on the board of the Ashburton Investment and Loan Society in 1940. This image, a studio portrait which is curiously flat, may have inspired Todd’s series The Wall of Man, 12 mock corporate portraits of senior male executives and medical specialists. She also showed me the haunting black and white image of Mavis Wilson, a distant relative from Tinwald near Ashburton who lost her mother when she was five and then, tragically, died of scarlet fever when she was nine. In the portrait Mavis holds a toy bear on wheels and her sad eyes echo the sense of hopelessness we often see in Todd’s portraits of young women. Another memorable image was Gilbert Melrose’s portrait of his much-loved sister Joan sitting on a horse wearing a dress, her bare legs wrapped around the impressive animal’s sides. It’s a lush image capturing an idyllic rural scene that would have been typical of small-town New Zealand in the fifties and sixties. Looking at these old family portraits, many of which will be in the exhibition, I felt a door was opening and admitting me to the bizarre parallel universe Todd has created. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Yvonne Todd.

Gilbert Melrose, Joan on Horse, c. 1960, darkroom hand print, 35.5 x 35.5 cm; Todd’s ancestor, the tragically short-lived Mavis Doreen Wilson (1908–1918). Courtesy of the artist

In her essay in the book, she writes: “In a box of odds and ends, Nana kept the trimmings and memorabilia from her parents’ lavish Edwardian wedding. Amongst the silver paper decorations and yellowing pieces of lace were ornaments from the cake itself, silk flowers, a bunch of pale silver grapes, and, most importantly, a small slender wax hand, something I found both macabre and beautiful. It was oddly realistic. Memories of the wax hand seem to have inspired and pervaded all of my photographs of hands.”

Chief Curator at City Gallery Wellington, Robert Leonard, who curated Creamy Psychology, quips, “Usually we have a range of things on at the gallery. But this time it is just Yvonne Todd. So, if you don’t like Todd’s work, you’re not going to have a good time.” Several years ago, when Leonard was Director of Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, he curated Todd’s Dead Starlets Assoc., also a survey, albeit much smaller than Creamy Psychology.

Leonard believes the sheer size of the show and its textured diversity will enable viewers to dig much deeper into the work than has been possible in the past. When Todd makes a series she often throws a spanner in the works—a seemingly unrelated work, which has nothing to do with the other images and keeps us guessing as to what the connection might be. She also takes an ensemble approach, including wildly diverse subject matter but printing it in the same size or format, or with the same tones as she did for the Asthma & Eczema series, which won the inaugural Walters Prize in 2002. Rather than taking a strictly chronological approach as is common with survey shows, Leonard has grouped works with similar subject matter. Thus we’ll see different clusters: the anorexics, the starlets, the dowdy Christians, the beauticians, the buildings, the businessmen, the disembodied hands and feet, the disabled women, and her largest series to date—the vegans.

Cults—some wholesome and others not so—have long fascinated Todd (Leonard has written about this in the book) and her 17 vegan portraits continue this interest. She advertised for people on a vegan website, and decided to shoot the portraits, which have a more gritty aesthetic and a grungier flavour than earlier work, on large-format negative film rather than on transparency film as she usually does. Although these are studio photographs, they’re less formal, veering closer to documentary, than any of Todd’s previous series. The loose swathes of fabric arranged like amateur stage curtains behind each subject give these works a quirky, homespun aesthetic that Todd says is intentionally old-fashioned. There’s humour too—the vegans are allowed to wear their own clothes and one of them appears in his lycra cycling gear, looking slightly more aspirational than the others. Todd wears tracksuit pants purchased from Farmers, and the glamour and gloss we’ve come to associate with many of her portraits is noticeably absent. The pull of these images is that, because we know these people are vegans (the title tells us so), we search for similarities and differences, clues to what else they might have in common apart from what they eat. All the stereotypes about vegans flit through our minds.

Yvonne Todd, self-portrait, 2014, c-type print, 80 x 63 cm; Yvonne Todd, Vegan Portrait 13, 2014, c-type print, 80 x 63 cm. Both from Ethical Minorities (Vegans). Courtesy of the artist
Within Creamy Psychology is a mini exhibition of photographs by Todd’s second cousin Gilbert Melrose, who ran a small photography shop in Matamata for 46 years—from 1957 to 2003. He and his sister Joan lived on the family farm in Walton, near Matamata, for most of their lives. He took thousands of photographs—both for work (images of weddings, portraits of community events, such as the Walton fete where he photographed children in fancy dress)—and for his own interest. After inheriting his personal archive, Todd began archiving and printing the negatives, and became increasingly fascinated with his obsessional tendencies, which she recognises as similar to her own.

Todd says Melrose “lived behind the camera” and describes him as “quite a diminutive man. He wore walk shorts and long socks, grey vinyl zip-up shoes and windcheaters. He and Joan always intrigued me. Neither of them married and they lived together until Joan died. They went to Movie World on the Gold Coast together every year for a holiday. They were like children—totally innocent.”

In the process of commissioning essays for the book Leonard opted for writing focussing on specific aspects of Todd’s work – thus he writes about cults, Misha Kavka about Todd and soap operas, Megan Dunn about Karen Carpenter and anorexia, and Claire Regnault about the role of costume in Todd’s photographs. Perhaps one of the most interesting, and provocative, essays is Anthony Byrt’s ‘Sons and Lovers: Yvonne Todd’s Gilbert Melrose Project’. In it he discusses sublimated desire and makes an acute observation about the similarities between Todd’s art and Melrose’s enterprise.

Byrt writes: “When Melrose passed away, Todd inherited his personal estate. Her response was not just to organise it, but co-opt it into her own practice. The prints in this book are a small selection of the many images Todd has reproduced under the moniker ‘Gilbert Melrose/Yvonne Todd’. On the face of things this seems an egregious appropriation, but in the photographic world it’s not unprecedented: the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, for example, has long been buying up negatives attributed to one of the inventors of the medium, Henry Fox Talbot, and reprinting them not as historical documents but as artworks that operate here now.

Yvonne Todd, Wet Sock, 2005, c-type print, 36 x 28.6cm. Courtesy of the artist

Todd’s approach is of a different order, based on two things: intimacy and synchronicity. This first point is obvious; Melrose isn’t a long-past hero of her discipline but a blood relative, with modest aspirations and no sense of his work as ‘art’.

Todd’s claim to his photographs, then, is a kind of affirmation, or elevation, of someone she was close to. The second point though, is the heart of the matter: the bizarre similarities between Melrose’s images – particularly the children at Walton Town Hall and his portraits of Joan—and Todd’s own. Flick through the book, and you’ll see people in costumes, children reflecting a passive—aggressive sexuality, scary teenagers with massive teeth, and women with borderline mental states: collective evidence of Todd’s longstanding fascination with monstrosity, which finds its inadvertent doppelganger in Melrose’s more ingenuous mindset.

In dealing with this double-act, it seems inevitable to think of Diane Arbus, whose enormous archive of images of freaks, outsiders, sexual deviants and the disabled was one of the most important and contentious photographic projects of America’s 20th century.”

Creamy Psychology is an exhibition that takes the single artist survey exhibition in New Zealand to a new level—both in terms of its size and diversity. It lifts the curtain on the fascinating parallel universe Todd has created in her work since the early nineties. Definitely not to be missed.

/ Virginia Were

Yvonne Todd: Creamy Psychology is at City Gallery Wellington from 6 December 2014 – 1 March 2015

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