With Auckland-based artist Yvonne Todd, you just never know what to expect. Her work shows that she enjoys pushing the limits. Her photographs are highly stylised and close to perfect, but they also make people feel strangely uneasy.
WORDS MARTINE ROLLS
PHOTOS YVONNE TODD / KARL CHITHAM / SHAUN WAUGH
We have come to Auckland to pick up the 11 dresses that will be part of her new exhibition Fictitious Bodies: Costume in Yvonne Todd’s Photography, curated by Claire Regnault, which can be seen at Tauranga Art Gallery from September until early December.
In August, another show with new work by Yvonne Todd has opened at the gallery. Called Barnacles, this exhibition explores ideas that will challenge you to think about photography and subject in a new way.
When we arrive at the house on the North Shore that Yvonne shares with husband Colin, their newborn son Jack and their three cats, the first thing we see when we turn into the driveway is a charming 1970s home. As soon as we park up, we notice a neglected swimming pool. Somehow, this seems fitting.
Yvonne welcomes us and we meet baby Jack who seems happy on a soft blanket on the lounge floor with jazz music playing in the background. Pipo, one of their three cats but the only one that’s not a Burmese, sits nearby on the coffee table, as if she has taken it upon herself to guard the little boy.
“I like an honest moggy,” Yvonne says. Pipo made an appearance in Goat Sluice (2008), part of the Creamy Psychology exhibition held at City Gallery in Wellington last year. The show included a display of Yvonne’s collection of vintage and designer dresses.
Yvonne is known for her photographs of models in glamorous gowns including Bob Mackie dresses once worn by celebrities.
She has photographed vegans, faux showgirls, as well as still-lifes and curious objects such as plastic pipes and inhalers. There are large-scale works, faceless figures, and unnerving self-portraits where Yvonne herself takes on the persona of particular characters.
The new Tauranga show, Fictitious Bodies, brings the artist’s work to the Bay of Plenty for the first time. It features some of Yvonne’s early work and costumes, including a dazzling gown once worn by Whitney Houston and a couture Ungaro dress that belonged to Liza Minnelli.
The artist has been collecting vintage dresses and glamorous red carpet gowns for years. Hours of browsing online has resulted in the purchase of all sorts of unique costumes. Some have been used in her artwork, while others are still waiting in Yvonne’s wardrobe for the right idea or a fitting moment.
A lot of the characters and ideas Yvonne uses in her practice also relate to interesting sites and stories she finds online.
“I love the Daily Mail. I find it’s a potent cocktail of celebrity gossip and fear-mongering. Then I say ‘no more’, only to be back the next day,” she laughs.
PHOTOGRAPHY AS ART
The models Yvonne uses are not photographed as themselves; they are characters. She explains that the people who intrigue her are not the ones who are remembered in a grand way.
“It’s the curious celebrities whose stories are always a little over the top and off-centre, like Christina Onassis and Joan Kroc widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc,” Yvonne explains.
Her photographs could be inspired by forgotten actresses from 1980s American soap operas, models from the cover of romance novels, or peculiar lunatics such as Ed Gein, an American murderer and body snatcher from the 1950s.
“It’s bizarre, beyond invention, in a way. With elements of the sinister, I leave the perception of the work up to the viewer’s imagination. What’s implied is what makes it interesting,” Yvonne says.
“My works are never all the same size, they are not necessarily equal. They feature what I find visually interesting, and tell intriguing stories. It’s all right if it doesn’t line up,” she says.
“I like to keep the set-ups simple. Most of the shoots are done at home. Frenzy (2007) was shot under the house,” she says.
This work, part of Fictitious Bodies, shows a model photographed in a basement wearing a huge ruffled Victorian-style tartan dress. But the vintage glamour dresses, couture pieces and luxurious materials seem to have been shelved, for now. Except perhaps for one of the new works that Yvonne has titled Infanta (2016).
“I first photographed her outdoors, but it didn’t work. She had no presence outside. She was too cheerful and that’s not what I had in mind. I wanted her to be menacing and ominous.
“I did a re-shoot inside with a plain grey background, and then changed the background again. The environment contextualises things and sometimes you have to strip away everything to make it work,” Yvonne says.
Her new work features models wearing costumes made out of curtain fabric and other household textiles. She says it all changed with Pale Blue (2016).
Joined by her mother Carol, Yvonne has taken numerous trips to Spotlight to pick out fabrics for the designs. Carol is a retired accountant who now sews and helps create the costumes.
“I like using unpretentious domestic elements in my work. Mum made the bib dress (Moone, 2016). She has a good logical brain and it’s great to work with her. She complains, but I think she secretly enjoys it,” Yvonne says.
“The female form is such a cliché in the world of photography. This time around, the costumes are un-glamorous and a lot more minimalist, but with domestic and highly exaggerated elements,” she explains.
Yvonne utilises photo-editing software but she uses film and an 8×10 camera for her exhibition work. That’s the reason, she says, she gets the quality.
In 2002, a year after graduating from Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland with a BFA majoring in Sculpture, she was the surprise winner of the first Walters Award. In judge Harald Szeemann’s own words, it was ‘the work that irritated me the most.’
Yvonne’s photographs are outstanding and the characters and objects in her work are beautiful but at the same time, the vibe around them is slightly off. Come see it for yourself at Tauranga Art Gallery.
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SEE THE EXHIBITS
Experience Yvonne’s work at Tauranga Art Gallery.
NEW WORK BY YVONNE TODD
19 AUG – 6 NOV
CURATED BY CLAIRE REGNAULT
COSTUME IN YVONNE TODD’S PHOTOGRAPHY
3 SEPT – 4 DEC
Tauranga Art Gallery
Cnr Wharf and Willow Streets