Serena Bentley is a Melbourne-based curator and art writer who is currently Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Victoria. She has a great affiliation with Yvonne Todd's work and in 2012 curated Wall of Seahorsel, an exhibition of the artist’s photographs at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, that also travelled to Dunedin Public Art Gallery. For City Gallery, Serena discusses Todd's series, The Wall of Man.
Men don’t appear often in Yvonne Todd’s work. The first was Founding CEO (2008), a large, standalone portrait of a silver haired gentleman exuding a powerful sense of paternal authority. A year later, a whole troop appeared – twelve in total - including Family Doctor (above), who I first encountered at the Ivan Anthony Gallery stand at the 2008 Auckland Art Fair, peering out, hand on chin, in a position of contrived benevolence. Todd fans build up an appetite for certain things - kitschy costumes, buck teeth, bad wigs. Family Doctor was different. He was so ordinary.
Todd had been interested in creating a body of work featuring actual male accountants arranged into a large-scale montage but decided that “the idea and the reality would not necessarily align and I was limiting myself by being too specific”. Instead, she placed an advertisement in her local newspaper The North Shore Times, calling for mature male models between the ages of 65 and 75. Her criteria were simple - they had to be “reasonably well groomed and socially functional”.
We’re all familiar with the visual language of the corporate portrait, featuring confident ‘experts’ with steely gazes and assertive body language, and Todd encouraged her resulting sitters to play the part. She clad them in formal shirts and jackets selected from local op shops and bestowed them with impressive titles like International Sales Director (above), Company Founder and Agrichemical Spokesman.
In front of the camera, Todd’s male models knew what to do. Retired Urologist squints smugly through his piss tinted glasses, Chief Financial Officer brandishes a fancy pen and Senior Executive smiles so calmly that we almost don’t notice his missing segment of finger. Part board room posturing, part amateur acting roll call, Todd’s blokes enact a strange form of mimicry.
The artist destabilises their authority through artifice. What at first glance appears to be resoundingly familiar slowly unravels as the sitters’ authenticity is called into question. Perhaps this is why I managed to convince myself, after looking at Founding CEO (above) for too long, that his entire face was actually a rubber mask that could be peeled away at the edges, revealing the true subject beneath.