Writer and critic Megan Dunn was our guest speaker at the opening of Creamy Psychology. I asked Megan more about Yvonne and her work...
You have written extensively about Yvonne Todd but it feels like there's a personal connection...
Yvonne and I have been friends since the late 90s. We bonded over art, trash and cask wine. I heard about her before I met her. My best friend from Elam attended Yvonne’s Teststrip opening for her first show Cabin Fever in 1997 and came back and announced that he had met this amazing woman and I was going to love her heels. I distinctly remember thinking: Hmm, sounds like competition to me. I couldn’t have been more accurate; neither could he. She is amazing and I do love her heels.
What do you love about her photographs?
I like the heady combination of mirth, mystery, misery and glamour. A lot of high-end commercial jiggery-pokery goes into Yvonne’s photographs. She manipulates the corrupt sales ploys of advertising imagery to create her own set of obscure, emotionally tantalising, often sexually leading photographs.
Take Wet Sock (2005) for example. I mean that sock is not just wet, it is dripping wet.
Is there a favourite?
I’m more interested in knowing the rest of Yvonne’s Top 5 which she kept referring to in her recent City Gallery artist talks. I know Sick Pipe Arrangement (2007), pictured below, and Angel (2007) were in her cut.
Do you own any of Yvonne's works?
I own a few very early pre-Walters snapshots that were given to me as presents back in the day. One is of a “phone sex” worker sprawled on the carpet, presumably mid conversation. I keep it in a black frame on my windowsill next to a jaunty ceramic fish.
Your contribution to the beautiful new Yvonne Todd book discusses the influence of The Karen Carpenter Story. Do you feel a lot of Yvonne’s characters would have had unhappy childhoods?
I think if Yvonne’s characters didn’t have unhappy childhoods, they would have made them up.
My essay is about Yvonne’s self-portraits as an anorexic. Yvonne grew up listening to The Carpenters and there is something about Karen’s famously cloistered life and death from anorexia that seems to strike a chord with Yvonne’s passive-aggressive portraits of demure young women in different states of suburban malaise. “We’ve only just begun” was also Yvonne’s choice of wedding song. She walked down the aisle to it.
Can you tell us a bit about the influence of teen fiction on her work?
Yvonne is a voracious reader - much critical attention has been paid to her love of popular female fiction from the 70s and 80s. Like many women of our generation, Yvonne has strong memories of the faux-Victorian child abuse and incest in Flowers in the Attic and the pastel toned Sweet Valley High cover art. When you look at the book covers in the sources room at City Gallery it’s really easy to see how the fraught (but beautiful) faces and static poses of the identical blonde twins from Sweet Valley High find an echo in Yvonne’s photographs.
However Yvonne’s totally idyosncratic titles like Goat Sluice and Greasy Harpist definitely don’t resemble anything from Sweet Valley High. She is attracted to very unusual word combinations and sounds. I would like to see her do a book of the alphabet. It could be called “Shrill Unease.” (Yvonne once described the Flowers in the Attic cover art as possessing a combination of “limp serenity and shrill unease.”)
Yvonne Todd's newest series on vegans stands out for the obvious absence of styling. Why a shift from the overly-made-up to real people?
The vegans are the latest in her lineage of documentary work that begun with Bellevue, her 2002 series of cosmeticians and make-up counter workers. I consider The Wall of Man part of this linage too, except the documentary portraits in this corporate series are an elaborate fiction. Ethical Minorities (Vegans) represents a new direction – Yvonne’s staged backgrounds meet the real-life stylings of the vegans. Who are these people? Who do we think they are? Who might they be?
The jarring aesthetic of the photographs accentuates our own conflicting ideologies about what is right and wrong, ethical and unethical, true and false.
How do you think Yvonne wants visitors to take her work?
Yvonne’s photography does not convey an obvious message; that’s part of the magic. Her photographs aren’t about how things “should be” or what we “should think.” Some people will look at The Wall of Man and see a group of banal corporate portraits that appear to be powerful members of the business community, others will find pure frivolity. In the end it’s what “Suits you, Sir.”
Rachel Healy, Communications Manager