In a 2001 work by Yvonne Todd, entitled Cheer, six women pose with the back of their heads to the camera. The French braids, ponytails and scrunchie-buns of young girls who might be competing at a Saturday gymnastics competition are decorated with sequined and lace baubles. I mention it here because Rashulon is like an epilogue to this earlier image, as if one of those teenage cheerleaders has finished high school and has entered a new phase of her life. Her gaze – hesitant, even as it is a bit baleful, considers her middle distance in a manner that seems to flinch from direct confrontation. Look longer, and that appraisal grows gentler, her eyes softer. Look back, and the shutters are down again.
Like many of Todd’s subjects, her attire is conspicuously awkward; the oversized spectacles and girlish floral print, the prim manner of her hair. She poses stiffly, dutifully. The landscaped area behind her shows signs of regular and conscientious tending. You get the feeling there is something confined about her existence. Curator Robert Leonard has noted that references to the ‘cultish’ are often made in relation to Todd’s subjects, and indeed here there is evidence of that same chaste sobriety, the same spotless, faintly ghoulish aura of piety.¹ The image’s title, Rashulon, also suggests a fantastical deity, and the girl’s constrained attire is consistent with commonly held perceptions of hermetic worshipers.
The otherworldly title is undercut by a more unworldly mode of presentation. Another of Todd’s reference points – the brittle and fetishized nature of girlhood in popular culture, is theatricalized in the oval vignette. The oval frame, an artifice of middle class family photography from the 1980s and 1990s, also recalls the short story, The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1842. The connection of Todd to the 19th century gothic imaginary of Poe does not seem unfitting; in Poe’s story, a compliant young wife agrees to sit for her portrait. Her husband, so engrossed in precisely rendering her image, fails to notice she is physically fading away before him. He finishes his painting to find she has died in her pose.
In many of Todd’s photographs of women, something is noticeably off balance with the subject. The women in her portraits pose rigidly, as if frozen. An aspect might be over emphasised: buck teeth, an unhealthy pallor, evidence of stilted development from the child to the adult, a void where a face a should be. The artifice of femininity – wigs, maquillage, costume – is often deliberately outmoded, and above all, never natural. But Todd’s presentation of a gothic feminine undercuts the conventions of Poe’s tale of horror vacui; the impulse to fill space and to render the object in exacting detail is overturned in her subject’s unreadable expression.
Rashulon, from the series The Lamb’s Book of Life, is one of six portraits in the set featuring a young, female subject that we might imagine comes from the closed order of a religious sect.² [ Perhaps the Book of Life is an object of worship, perhaps more widely it can be read as an indexical register of different modes of existence. In none of these images, can we meet the gaze of the woman pictured. Instead we regard her without ever quite managing to fully apprehend her.