Yvonne Todd: Early Works

by Andrew Clark first published in Auction N˚5 catalogue, 5th Apr 2017

By now, the narrative surrounding Yvonne Todd’s career has become part of the enduring mythology of New Zealand art. As Megan Dunn notes, Todd’s surprise win at the inaugural Walters Prize was positioned at the time as a shocking, upset win for a “shore girl” made good, an ex- wig-shop attendant, receptionist and strip club waitress who won a major art award.1 Coupled to this tendency to emphasise Todd’s biography is a similar tendency to elide the practice which gives rise to the images themselves; it sometimes seems as though her oeuvre sprang onto the scene as a fully-formed entity, complete and self-sufficient. However, this is far from being the case, as is demonstrated by this selection of her early work. Here, many of the ideas and themes explored in Todd’s mature practice can be seen, although in their formative stages.

These photographs initially present themselves as candid, voyeuristic snaps, relics of boozy weekends or perhaps tawdry, voyeuristic magazine shoots. However, like Cindy Sherman’s seminal Untitled Film Stills series (1977-80), closer inspection reveals the artificiality of these scenarios: they are designed to highlight their own performativity, their excessive nature becoming a fragility that hides an emptiness, a mask that conceals not the face, but another mask. These works directly prefigure Todd’s 1998 Thrombosis work, which similarly enacts a deliberately performed aura of seediness, presenting a series of vignettes as though they were snapshots dredged from the bottom of a cluttered drawer. Like Thrombosis, most of these early works are silver gelatin prints, a marked contrast to the lush colour she would employ later. However, Todd never entirely abandoned monochrome, returning to black and white for a number of works including Tide (2003) and Roba (2004).

Todd’s persistent interest in challenging or discomforting her viewer can be seen in these early works. In later images such as Frenzy (2006) or Hazel the Forbidden (2007) the threat is implicit, encoded in the awkwardness of the body language of the sitter and the strange scenario in which they are placed. Here, the threat is explicit: a girl emerges from a darkened stairwell, menacing the camera with a rake; elsewhere, Todd herself poses with a fetishist’s whip draped over her shoulder; in a third image, Todd pulls another woman’s hair, brandishing her fake nails like talons. As Todd’s practice matured, she discarded such overt provocations, recognising that, in many cases, the things that are the most threatening are those that appear the most normal. The uncanny is, in many cases, a more powerful source of discomfort, or even disgust, than the merely shocking. However, here Todd revels in the burlesque and the perverse, her campy threats a challenge to the sensibilities of an imagined audience who, probably, aren’t all that offended.

Anthony Byrt notes the ritual dimension of Todd’s interest in costume, citing her Cousin Diptych (1989), which later reappeared as part of Thrombosis.2 In this pair of images, Todd and her cousin appear as teenagers, dressing for a night on the town which, in fact, never happened. The two images from the present collection that depict a group of young women snorting cocaine could be read as a kind of sequel or coda to the Cousin Diptych, performances of glamour and excitement whose veracity remains opaque. These images, with their turbocharged parody of 80s excess, present themselves as paparazzi snapshots, but as we read the image, deciphering the details of the girls’ clothes, jewellery and facial expressions, a sense of artifice begins to emerge: the costume jewels, the impossibly feathered bangs, the comical rhinestone coke straws. Todd isn’t really interested in the party, or the act of drug-taking, but in the rituals which surround them. These images are about inhabiting a posture of glamour and coolness, and the way this behaviour can both prop up a sense of self and simultaneously obscure and marginalise it.

Drug taking crops up again in Todd’s work in the form of Homage to Doctor Spackman (2004), in which a single “diet pill” (in reality a capsule of Phentermine, an amphetamine-analogue) rests on a mirror alongside seven dripping black candles in a demented product shot. Rather than the red-blooded world of coke-taking party girls, we are here in the paranoid, highly strung milieu of pill popping socialites. In January (2006), the gaunt model’s red-rimmed eyes and quilted dressing gown speak of addiction, illness and alienation; the title of the work references the character January Wayne in Jacqueline Susann’s 1973 novel Once is Not Enough, whose drug-taking ultimately leads to her death. In Empire (2005), Todd presents an array of attractively designed inhalers, commenting on the status of drugs and medicines as part of the matrix of consumer culture. These works collectively represent a distinct strand in Todd’s practice, which gestures towards the seedier side of the pharmaceutical industry: the potential for abuse encoded in even the most innocuous of cures.

Another aspect of Todd’s practice which has not changed from her early work onwards is her persistent interest in popular culture: soap operas, advertisements, pulp novels, The Reader’s Digest. Whereas in works such as the Sets and Subsets series Todd emulates the airless pastel wasteland of 1970s daytime TV, in this early phase Todd cast her sights back further, to the 50s and 60s: the heyday of exploitation movies and softcore porn. There is a distinct sexploitation vibe to Motel: Cheri Champagne, Sweet Carolina & Princess the Maid (1995), a campy self-awareness that both undermines and celebrates the prurient potential of the image. The shabby motel backdrop, complete with quintessentially ‘90s CRT TV and white plastic phone, becomes the setting for a grainy black and white tableau that reads like a parodic blackmail attempt. This tendency towards kitsch persists to some extent in Todd’s later work, but is tempered by a genuine love of period fashion; Todd’s use of Bob Mackie dresses and antique Victorian gowns in her later work is not necessarily meant to be ironic.

Out of all these images, the one which points the most directly towards the avenue which Todd would later pursue is her formal portrait of a young woman wearing a tiara and strange, almost reptilian leather gloves. One finger rests against her cheek, while she gazes off into the distance with the glazed, semi-paralysed expression familiar to anyone who has ever had to endure “picture day” at school. However, the veneer of apparent normalcy is shattered by one detail: the prosthetic scars on her face, which stretch from the corners of her mouth halfway up her cheeks, in the infamous “Chelsea smile.” By injecting the spectre of violent disfigurement into this seemingly banal photo, Todd begins to explore the possibilities of the uncanny, as discussed above, and also prefigures the false teeth with which she equips her subjects in images such as Drexel and Frottex (2008), artificial blemishes that bizarrely parallel Todd’s microscopic attention to hair and makeup.

In her early work, Todd was already exploring the themes which became her trademarks: a concern with costume and performance; cults, subcultures and fetishes; illness, addiction and death; and transgression or confrontation with the viewer. At this stage in her artistic development, Todd was pushing the boundaries, making broad gestures and testing out ideas, to see what worked and what didn’t. While they may lack the laser-focused precision and tightly controlled expression of her later works, these early studies make up for it with their sheer creative energy.

  1. Megan Dunn, “Close to You: the Yvonne Todd Story,” in Creamy Psychology (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2014), 45.
  2. Anthony Byrt, “Sons and Lovers: Yvonne Todd’s Gilbert Melrose Project,” in Creamy Psychology, 92.