Lucy Jackson – 5 June, 2018
Beyond an association with past work is a relationship to growth and production. 'Tubal' can be something relating or occurring in a tube, in particular the fallopian tubes. 'Tuber' can also come from the Latin meaning of ‘lump, bump, swelling'. In regards to flora, 'tubers' are a stem that serves as a food reserve and bears buds from which new plants arise. I can safely assume that Todd's new series is focused around ideas of fertility, growth and reproduction. I am proved correct, even though that is never explicitly stated in the exhibition.
30 May - 23 June 2018
Yvonne Todd‘s photographs fill us with a sense of both defiance and unease. The models look out at us as if they have been caught—or stare, confronting us. The still lives and Gilbert Melrose collaborations hold an artificiality and imbalance. They unsettle—I think that’s their best quality.
Todd‘s new series Tuba is made up of just five images. Based at Todd’s dealer gallery, Peter McLeavey Gallery, it repeats the same makeup of her Vermillion exhibition at the same gallery last year. Like Vermillion, Tuba consists of three figures, one still life, and one Melrose collaboration. Is a pattern occurring? If so, it is an arrangement that works, showing Todd’s specialty (the female figure) as well as her classic still life and more recent venture into reimagining her late second cousin Gilbert Melrose’s photographs. The five photographs fit comfortably into the two rooms of the Peter McLeavey Gallery—any more and it would be too many, any less and it would be too sparse.
Prior to visiting the exhibition, the series title, Tuba, has me intrigued. My first thought is tubes—both manmade and natural. I think back to Todd’s earlier pipe studies and her concentration on photographing water pipes, or tubes, onto mauve backgrounds, pairing them with bubbles, or having them emit smoke. Is this what Yvonne is setting up for us in the title of her series? At this point in her practice, motifs start occurring more frequently and we start to look back at earlier works to consider relationships across series; both in their connections and differences. Perhaps this harking back to the past underlines my visit before it even starts.
Beyond an association with past work is a relationship to growth and production. Tubal can be something relating or occurring in a tube, in particular the fallopian tubes. Tuber can also come from the Latin meaning of ‘lump, bump, swelling’. In regards to flora, tubers are a stem that serves as a food reserve and bears buds from which new plants arise. I can safely assume that Todd’s new series is focused around ideas of fertility, growth and reproduction. I am proved correct, even though that is never explicitly stated in the exhibition.
It begins with Egg-Self, 2018, because that’s where we all begin—as an egg. A model is clad in a long yolk-yellow dress made out of rough linen or sacking like material, with flared and frayed sleeves. Todd plays with makeup again, as she has done in previous series, adding dramatic fake eyelashes to the bottom and top of the model’s eyes. To me, the eyelashes mimic the sunflower petals of the still life in the series, Stalks. The theatrical makeup is at odds with the hippy-esque dress. She almost looks like an escaped Manson Girl. She carries two brown hessian strings which resemble macramé weaving. In them, real and fake (polystyrene) eggs are carried precariously, teetering on falling out of their macramé casing. They remind me of poi.
A literal egg carrier, is Egg-Self a comment on women, potential life, the fragility of fertility? Egg-Self looks as if she has been caught unawares, is she sneaking off somewhere? Perhaps she is preserving her eggs for the future. What’s more, the lanky length of the photograph (mirrored in her floor length dress, the woven strings, and the model’s hair), is disrupted by the small bump present on her stomach that her hair sits on. Is Egg-Self a surrogate carrying life? Whose are the eggs? Are they her own, and she is unwilling to share them or be told what to do with them? She holds the potential of life outside, or inside, her body.
Todd moves away from manipulating her photographs with Photoshop in this series, choosing not to edit away the line where the Perspex meets her studio floor in the background of the photograph. The result is a closer examination and an appreciation for Todd’s process—photographing on 8 x 10 transparencies, scanning them, minimally editing, before enlarging and printing. The effect is close to perfect. Egg-Self is a knock out photograph. It asks more questions than gives answers, and holds your gaze as you walk through the Gallery.
Stalks depicts four sunflowers that are withering under the light. Shot against Todd’s bathroom window, the edges of their petals are curled, their leaves turning brown. Sunflowers can represent optimism and nourishment, and the flower produces an abundance of seeds. Sunflowers are often associated with a hippy sentimentality and positivity, yet they have not been depicted in this way, given their obvious decay. Yvonne says herself that she is interested in giving objects human-like qualities.(1) How are we meant to interpret this photograph? Is it the threat of the seeds? Do the sunflowers represent a human quality? Or do they perhaps represent the cycle of life (and ultimately death).
Todd’s collaborative work with Melrose is Maize, c.1970s / 2018. It features a man on a red tractor ploughing crops of maize. The colours in the photograph are lurid. Todd has intervened slightly, editing the photograph by mirroring the bright blue sky as a boarder on the bottom of the photograph. Similar to my reaction to Stalks, I think something darker is being hinted at. The tractor and man are ploughing down or harvesting crops. Todd rarely includes males in her photographs—is the inclusion of this man purposeful? I find myself questioning the link between Melrose‘s work and Todd’s. I don’t know if I always understand it. Is it a nostalgia for the past and family ties that make Todd return time again to Melrose’s archive of works, reworking, tweaking, and exhibiting them? Regardless, Maize fits into the narrative at play in Tuba, introducing the necessary male.
The same model that Todd has used before (Enskë from Vermillion) is photographed again for non-identical twins New Portia and Polymorph. New Portia features a model with a mushroom-like wig, thick black eyeliner with false lashes stuck on underneath her eyes, and wearing a pinky-red dress. The dress is in 1960s style, high necked and swing shaped. A transparent pocket is sewed to the front, and in it a bouquet of fake daisies is held, the stalks visible through the clear plastic. It as if new life has sprung from the direction of her uterus.
However, my first thought is that New Portia could be taking on the role of a marsupial—that is, an animal that keeps their young in a pouch on the mother’s belly after they are born until they are fully developed. In her hands are two daisies, laid out, it is as if she is offering them to us. They mimic ovaries, both in their off-white colour and placement beside her hips. The choice of daisies appears deliberate—they have connotations of innocence, new beginnings, and they are often found in bouquets for new mothers or as gifts for children. The deep pink red of the dress could hold further connotations—of blood, menstruation and reproduction.
New Portia looks fearful. Her eyes are open wide, looking out of the frame. Who or what is walking towards her? Is she sacrificial? I can’t help but think of a pop culture reference to The Handmaid’s Tale. Is she waiting for the act of impregnation, or has this already been successful? Perhaps there is a false hope of pregnancy, symbolised by the fake bouquet in her pouch.
Polymorph is the unnatural oddity in Tuba, catching us as viewers off guard. There are no flowers or obvious ties to fertility. Instead, Polymorph—which means an organism or inorganic object or material which takes various forms—showcases a fake fur dress in kitschy rainbow colours, alongside yellow fishnet stockings. Despite the difference in outfit and tone, the resemblance to New Portia is clear. The wig is slightly different, but the make-up is the same, and although the dress is different in colour and fabric it is the same style as New Portia‘s.
Polymorph‘s size is disconcerting. She is neither life size, or miniature. She is almost alien, defiantly looking us in the eye and stridings towards us, out of the picture frame.
There is a polymorphism at play in Tuba. Are New Portia and Polymorph set up as twins, good and bad, for us to decide? Polymorph comes across as menacing in contrast to New Portia‘s fearful passivity. Polymorph‘s sickly sweet colour combination reminds me of a rainbow popsicle and is alien in comparison.
Todd’s latest exhibition delivers layers of ambiguity, as one has come to expect. As always there are multiple interpretations: the works are not fully explained, but what they always maintain is an unsettling presence between you and them. The colours of the first four works are bright and intense, and help to guide our understanding. The titles assist in their readings, and each work seems to harp back to previous works of the artist’s—if you are familiar with her oeuvre. (If not, you might be a bit lost.) A self-reflective quality is at play here, but perhaps that is just my projection.
(1) Yvonne Todd, “Do I Even Like Photography?,” in Creamy Psychology: Yvonne Todd, ed. Robert Leonard (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2014), 23.
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