City Gallery

Megan Dunn, opening speech, 5 December 2014.

‘That’s quite Yvonne Todd’, a staff member said. I looked up. It was 2010 and I was out the back of the then Borders store on Lambton Quay loading books onto a trolley. The staff member didn’t realise she was in the presence of someone who felt uniquely qualified to judge what is or isn’t ‘Yvonne Todd’. It’s not the first or last time I’ve heard people—strangers—use this phrase. ‘That’s quite Yvonne Todd’ is used to denote the tone or timbre of an off-kilter image or experience. On Twitter, I often see comments about what people would like Yvonne Todd to photograph next. Not so long ago, it was the royal portrait of Kate Middleton.

Creamy Psychology is an exhibition that investigates what we mean when we say, ‘That’s quite Yvonne Todd.’ It also investigates why people—strangers—are out there using her work as a frame of reference. Only the great artists become compass points in the culture. It’s rare for an artist’s name alone to summon an entire sensibility and despite our current emphasis on professionalism, networking, MFAs, PhDs, selfies, it’s something you can’t ultimately orchestrate.

Since winning the inaugural Walters Prize in 2002, Yvonne has expanded her persuasive often irreverent, buxom-toothed, sometimes even neck-braced, yet unashamedly feminine worldview.

The Sea of Tranquillity is no longer just the site on the moon where Neil Armstrong—allegedly—touched down, it’s also Todd’s series of troubled young women styled in the era of the 1960s and photographed against black backgrounds that evoke the terminal velocity of space. Like Alice Bayke, her frosted wedding gown somehow redolent of the moon’s lunar surface, a different site for an astronaut to touch down. I wager Alice is no less in orbit than Neil.

Todd does good men too. Who could forget the nebulous charisma of the otherwise anonymous Sales Executive or the piss-tinted glasses of the Retired Urologist in The Wall of Man? Working in the book industry, I’m especially endeared to Todd’s vision of the Publisher. He wears a white turtleneck that seems as ingratiating as his smile. He represents the corduroyed end of the corporate world. Though I notice his hair is much shorter than Fergus Barrowman’s, publisher of the Creamy Psychology book on sale tonight.

Todd’s self-portraits are rare but also revealing. In Greasy Harpist, she is posed in a flowing classical gown and stands next to the equally classical harp, which matches, perhaps even overshadows, her stature. The harp is all consuming. Commitment to an art form demands more than elbow grease.

In 2004, art critic Anthony Byrt called Todd the best New Zealand artist of her generation. I agree. Yvonne’s quiet steel has served her well in managing the challenges of early artistic success. I recall she was offered the opportunity to pose for Australia’s FHM magazine after winning the Walters Prize. My husband at the time said to me: ‘If it were you, you would have done it.’ It’s important to note, in Yvonne’s work, only the psychology is creamy.

When we were discussing the show, Robert Leonard said there are those who are inside the cult, like me, where it all makes sense, and those who are outside the cult, looking in—but the power of attraction is no less acute. For instance, when Robert looks at Cheer, a photograph of the backs of six female heads (maybe cheerleaders), he is reminded of a New Zealand performance artist who once cut off a girl’s ponytail and presented it as a work of art—a brutal reversal of pin the tail on the donkey. When I look at Cheer, I recall inspecting the hairstyles of girls seated before me in school assembly. I understand the status, the mangled aspirations, entailed in ponytail accessories.

Yvonne’s work has been called many things over the years—suburban gothic, ‘an odalisque of awkwardness’—and also said to exemplify the North Shore’s unique point of view. But, its wider belonging is to the late-twentieth century, as summarised by Harald Szeemann, who was so memorably irritated by her image of the Warkworth Satellite Earth Station, tilted towards space; a photograph called Quaalude Eyes.

The big moment for me came several years before the Walters Prize, in 1998, when I saw her exhibition Fleshtone at Rm3 Gallery, then located out the back of the Real Groovy building on Queen Street. The close up of a Kent wood fire bluely ablaze was somehow the clincher that day. ‘Where is she?’, I said. ‘I have to meet her.’

To imagine New Zealand art without the body of work that lies ahead in these rooms of City Gallery is impossible for me. I know many of us here tonight feel the same way. Yvonne Todd’s Creamy Psychology has made our world a more interesting place to be.

Megan Dunn, ‘Q and A’, blog.

Rachel Healy: You’ve written extensively about Yvonne Todd. It feels like there’s a personal connection.

Megan Dunn: Yvonne and I have been friends since the late 1990s. We bonded over art, trash, and cask wine. I heard about her before I met her. My best friend from Elam attended the opening of her first show Cabin Fever, at Teststrip in 1997. He came back and announced he had met this amazing woman and I was going to love her heels. I remember thinking: Hmm, sounds like competition. 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) and Angel (2007) were in her cut.

Do you own any of Yvonne’s works?

I own a few early pre–Walters Prize 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 essay in the catalogue discusses the influence of the film 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. She 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 attention has been paid to her love of popular female fiction from the 1970s and 1980s. Like many women of our generation, she 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 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 idiosyncratic titles like Goat Sluice and Greasy Harpist definitely don’t resemble anything from Sweet Valley High. She is attracted to 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’.

Todd’s latest series, on vegans, stands out for the obvious absence of styling. Why a shift from overtly made-up to real people?

The vegans are the latest in her lineage of documentary (and quasi-documentary) series, which begun with Bellevue (2002) featuring cosmeticians and makeup-counter workers. 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 Todd 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’.

Serena Bentley, ‘Yvonne Todd: The Wall of Man’, blog.

Men don’t appear often in Yvonne Todd’s work. The first was Founding CEO (2008), a large, stand-alone portrait of a silver-haired gentleman exuding a powerful sense of paternal authority. A year later, a whole troop appeared, twelve in total. They include Family Doctor, 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, 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 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.