Book review

Yvonne Todd: Creamy Psychology
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2014
RRP: $50 NZD

Yvonne Todd’s solo exhibition Creamy Psychology held at City Gallery Wellington marked the first time that the entire gallery had been handed over to one artist. Running from 6 December 2014 until 15 March 2015 and including over 150 photographs, Creamy Psychology showcased the New Zealand artist’s work from the late 1990s to the present. Todd’s strange, off kilter photographs are populated by highly styled individuals cast as characters, including cult members, Christians, anorexics, heiresses, cosmeticians. The artist predominantly photographs women, who are often heavily made up and transformed by wigs, costumes and even fake teeth. Despite her background in commercial photography, these images are defined by their imperfection, they are never quite right. 

Creamy Psychology was accompanied by an equally comprehensive publication of the same name. Published by Victoria University Press with assistance from Creative New Zealand, it is the largest body of writing around the artist to date. In it, Creamy Psychology curator and publication editor Robert Leonard has commissioned a series of essays that, like the show, reveal the breadth of Todd’s practice.

Te Papa curator Claire Regnault’s essay ‘The Book of Timothy: Costume in Todd’s Photography’, focuses on the artist’s interest in costuming. Garments have been key in Todd’s work, particularly since the early 2000s, and an item of clothing often provides the starting point for a shoot, with Todd building a narrative around it. The artist scours second hand clothing stores and the internet for glamorous pre-loved gowns worn by celebrities like Whitney Houston and Liza Minnelli. A selection of these dresses was presented in the exhibition space alongside the photographs they feature in, like the coral Bob Mackie number complete with vulval split worn by the pregnant new-ager Gynecology (2006). 

At the other end of the spectrum is Todd’s fascination with modest, Christian-style clothing, as worn by the women in her series Lamb’s Book of Life (2007)—for instance the shapeless denim dress worn by Molvah (Prayerful One) (2006). Regnault reveals that their dowdy garb was inspired by Todd’s obsession with the online custom dress business Lydia of Purple, run by a Christian seamstress creating modest dresses for good Christian women. For Regnault, this area of the Todd wardrobe reveals the flip side of clothing as expression—namely, clothing as control. From the high end to the excessively demure, Todd employs costuming to explore constructions of femininity.

In the essay ‘Close to You: The Yvonne Todd Story’ art critic Megan Dunn explores other impositions on the female body by addressing the artist’s fascination with eating disorders, manifest in disturbing self-portraits like Resulta (2004), in which Todd achieved ‘the ideal weight’ by photographing a dressing gown on a coat hanger, and completing the image by photo shopping her head on top. Or there is Springtime (2006), in which the artist’s cousin perches limply on a swing, her jaw line razored down by Todd to create a more ghoulish effect. Dunn observes that these macabre images ‘enact a dark, wishful fulfillment’—in Todd’s world, vulnerabilities and illness are sometimes a perverse source of pride. Leonard adds to this in his essay ‘Cult Appeal’, writing Todd’s oeuvre is ‘full of sad cases, cripples, Miss Lonely-hearts and other victims of circumstance raised to the state of heroines, worthy of a studio portrait’. 

Leonard aligns this odd assembly of characters with the references to cults that pervade the writing around Todd’s work. For him, cult members are defined simply as ‘people who do things differently’. Accordingly, all number of Todd’s characters fit the bill, from the muddied, loin-clothed Gunther (2010), to the subjects of Todd’s most recent series, Ethical Minorities (Vegans) (2014). These straight documentary images feature vegans assembled by, and including, Todd, shot studio style against flaccid, luridly lit drapery. Leonard observes that there are no common attributes that identify these sitters as vegans; their commonality is revealed in title only. An interest in playing with and against stereotype is key to understanding Todd’s work. 

Alongside additional contributions by Auckland University’s Misha Kavka (on Todd and daytime TV) and Anthony Byrt (on Todd’s project reprinting her cousin Gilbert Melrose’s small town community photographs) is an anthology of earlier writings from the late 1990s and early 2000s, the period when Todd’s career began to take off. A defining moment in Todd’s folklore was her surprise win of the inaugural Walters Prize (New Zealand’s equivalent to the Turner Prize) in 2002, judged by the late great curator Harald Szeemann, who claimed that Todd’s work ‘irritated me most’. Her prize-winning body of work was Asthma and Eczema, which included images of dewy peach roses; limp hands and eerily backlit brides. I vividly remember seeing these works, and, like Szeemann, was confused by them. So it was a surprise that more of this series was not included in the exhibition (represented only by the dusky landscape Quaalude Eyes (2001)). The re-printing of Greg Dixon’s article ‘Love Is a Rose’, printed at the time of the prize in the New Zealand Listener, was helpful in contextualizing the reception of Todd’s work at that time. 

What the historical texts also reveal is how early on in Todd’s career her key concerns were cemented. From the outset an interest in commercial photography techniques, costuming, and elaborate back-stories lifted from popular culture have all been present. These elements are further examined in, for me, a publication highlight—Yvonne Todd’s essay, ‘Do I Even Like Photography?’, an essay that meanders through her journey into art making. Todd is a gifted storyteller with a delight for the mundane. She recalls experimenting with the Agfamatic pocket camera she received for her eighth birthday and the profound disappointment she felt with the resulting blurry photographs she took of her budgerigars Biggles and Peanuts. During her brief foray into wedding photography she describes the pressure of not mucking the photos up. For Todd making work is still a trial. She confesses; ‘Often, when I take photographs, I rush through the process as if it’s an unpleasant task, like cleaning up vomit’.

Todd is refreshingly frank, keen to demystify the art making process whilst simultaneously upholding a practice defined thematically by its ambiguity. In her work she provides us with props and clues to build our own narratives. Creamy Psychology affords readers a similar freedom, with the assembled writings providing multiple entry points into the artist’s work, fleshing out  her unique world of misfits, survivors, and outcasts, and cementing the book’s self-proclaimed title as the new go to guide on Todd.

Yvonne Todd, Molvah Prayful One, from the series 'Christians', 2007. Courtesy the artist and City Gallery, Wellington.