Peter Dornauf – 24 August, 2011
There's an element of fetishism about their presence, some compulsive disorder operating here that's perhaps connected to the wider society - a metaphor for all that's toxic about western capitalism and its obsession with image. These young women recall the trophy wife, stuffed and mounted. One thinks of Priscilla Presley in her earlier incarnations. (see Approximation of Tricia Martin, 2007). Elvis loved all that backcombed hair.
13 August - 25 September 2011
Self Medicating is the consummate title heading the current exhibition of photographic works by Yvonne Todd now showing at the Calder and Lawson Gallery, Academy of Performing Arts, University of Waikato. Organized by Art Collections curator, Karl Chitham, the works were chosen by Todd herself and cover a period from 2002 to 2010 which happily include pages from her workbook, revealing references, drawings and inspirational images which grant the viewer a sneak preview of the germination and development of ideas in the creative process. Chitham has produced a useful, clear and erudite introduction to the show in an essay in the accompanying small twenty-four page catalogue.
Yvonne Todd burst onto the New Zealand art scene from almost nowhere a few years back, taking off with the inaugural Walters Prize in 2002, outgunning heavyweights like John Reynolds and Gavin Hipkins who had form and a substantial history and body of work behind them.
Her Stepford Wives-like images seemed to hit a nerve. Eerily creepy, even sinister, these young, over preened women with buffed hair and frozen look, (Barbie meets Myra Hindley), speak of a feminist agenda with an undertow of something darker. There’s a gothic edge to these artificially constructed creatures, a cross between some character out of a Flannery O’Conner story and a bit part player in My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
It’s easy to mock such pushover targets, like shooting ducks in a barrel, but what’s seductive, even compelling about the approach, is the way Todd brings another layer to the subject with a kind of Hitchcock overlay that taps a deeper vein. Psychosis is not far from the surface, simmering away just beneath the smooth lacquered veneer of these apparitions, something that touches on Freud and his civilization of discontents.
There’s a Cindy Sherman element operating here too with the prosthetics, the staged look, the wigs, the lighting, the focus on contrivance, the construction and exploration of gender roles. Christine Webster and Margaret Dawson employed something of the same approach here in New Zealand in the late eighties and nineties with their theatrical photographs and Todd, belonging to the same circle, has engaged in the same tricks but added a more disturbing quotient to the mix. The kick that extends and reworks the trope is the macabre that sits up so close to normality that the distance between the banal and clinically disturbed is substantially narrowed. The glazed stare of these women, mouth half open, mind vacant, present, in some cases, an Aryan accentuation in their persona, it’s death-like tenor manifest in the elongated attached nails on the hand of the subject (Drexel and Frottex, 2008) which look like dead bird claws.
There’s an element of fetishism about their presence, some compulsive disorder operating here that’s perhaps connected to the wider society - a metaphor for all that’s toxic about western capitalism and its obsession with image. These young women recall the trophy wife, stuffed and mounted. One thinks of Priscilla Presley in her earlier incarnations. (see Approximation of Tricia Martin, 2007). Elvis loved all that backcombed hair.
The male equivalent might be Benny Hinn, the American TV evangelist. You wouldn’t need to tweak these people too far to end up with a Todd concoction. Indeed Todd has ventured into the male preserve with a series of silver haired gentleman portraits, corporate figures, like stags at bay, backlit and reeking of patriarchal privilege. There’s a touch of the cult of masculinity also about them which recent events, the massacre of 77 people by Andres Breivik, and the revelations by American feminist, Gloria Steinem, about the Norwegian’s misogyny, (which barely rated a mention in the media) add a timely relevance to Todd’s expose. Gunther, 2010, is the ludicrous and pathetic epitome of such macho posturing at the far end of the scale. Looking at those heavily framed executive shots from another angle, one is somehow reminded of all those slightly crass and ghoulish laminated photographs glued onto cemetery headstones these days.
The picture of narcissism and its recurrent death motif is perfectly captured in an unsettling blonde wigged portrait entitled Valley Candle, of 2008, an image that mimics, in composition, an early surrealist work of Salvador Dali (The Angelus of Gala) where the figure of Gala is made is to stare back at herself in the painting, that is itself engaged with the subject of death.
One wonders at times if any of this needs to be traversed today in the new post feminist age. But when one is confronted with the world of digital retouching, airbrushing, the obsession with Pippa Middleton’s butt, (people begging surgeons to doctor their derriere), and the phenomena of Toddlers and Tiaras, (beauty pageants for little girls pretty in pink), together with the news that Dora has had a makeover (gone the sensible haircut, backpack and map, replaced with seductive long locks and cosmetic ranges), perhaps Todd and her period photographs are not misplaced.
Unfortunately it won’t make a blind bit of difference in the real world. But then we all knew that. However one must bear witness, of course, and that in the end is what art does.
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