Pavement, No.51, February/March 2003
Experiencing my first Yvonne Todd exhibition was like being haunted by the ghost of my own depraved adolescence. 1998’s Fleshtone revelled in the seedy sexuality and misguided glamour of Todd’s Takapuna teenage years. “I used to wear a hot pink leather miniskirt, over-the-knee suede boots and a tasselled leather jacket to high school,” she recalls. Meanwhile, I wiled away my own puberty in a pair of scuffed Fuck me’ boots and denim jeans ripped just below the arse. Our paths were destined to cross at the Fleshtone opening after Todd turned up in a staggering pair of black bondage-style stilettos with silver ankle chains. “You’ve got to meet Yvonne. You are gonna love her heels!” my gay date exclaimed. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Four years on from Fleshtone, Todd is widely considered New Zealand’s leading up-and-coming photographer. Her coveted style is at once alluringly nostalgic and chillingly feminine. Remember the veiled soft porn at the heart of David Hamilton’s photography? Or the cover art for Virginia Andrews’ incestuous novel Flowers in the Attic? What about the sentimental iconography of Hallmark’s sympathy cards featuring a pale pink rose covered in morning dew? Todd’s meticulous studio portraits reference these seeds of yesterday.
“I like thinking of all the work that went into creating images that once epitomised technical and creative brilliance but are now largely forgotten,” she remarks wistfully.
At just twenty-eight years of age, Todd is hot property. Since Fleshtone, her photographs have appeared in eight group exhibitions and she has produced four highly acclaimed solo shows. In 1999, her haunting classic The Menthol Series stole the limelight in a ‘new talent’ exhibition at Artspace. Quintessentially Todd, The Menthol Series is both beautiful and tragic, like the bittersweet refrain of a Karen Carpenter ballad, encouraging art critic Justin Paton to gush: “The verb “seen” hardly does justice to my response to those photographs, which stopped me short, tapped deep veins of nostalgia and managed to outstare everything in the room.”
New Plymouth’s savvy Govett-Brewster Gallery snapped up the sallow, nicotine-stained The Menthol Series, reinforcing Todd’s reputation as an artist to watch. Represented by Auckland dealer Ivan Anthony, this year Todd’s work will also be seen at Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington. This is no small feat, considering McLeavey represents art icon Colin McCahon and rarely takes on newcomers. “We met up for tea at Smith & Caughey’s,” Todd says of her first meeting with McLeavey.
There is a touch of the eccentric to Todd and more than once she has been likened to Phoebe from Friends. However, her memorable party performances aren’t quite as innocent as Phoebe’s folk ditty ‘Smelly Cat’. Todd hogged the karaoke machine on her last birthday, delivering at least eight bawdy, blood-curdling renditions from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Todd’s recent Devil Doll portraits feature ghostly female figures in flowing Victorian gowns. A tribute to Lloyd Webber melodramatic musical?
“I wanted to produce a series of images that were aggressively feminine,” she explains. In these three enchanting works, a lone woman stands in a barren prairie lands her features obscured by heavy shade. Who is she? The restless spirit of Wuthering Heights two-timing Cathy? Or a runaway from the cover of a Mills and Boons bodice ripper? The answer, of course, is neither. She is actually Michelle, one of Todd’s best friends.
All of the enigmatic muses in Todd’s portraits are people nearest and dearest to her heart. Whether cousins, girlfriends past and present or her beloved cats Scamper and Whitey, Todd has a knack for creating iconic images from her familiar surroundings. “I like the idea of immortalising people and animals,” says Todd. Her portraits possess a rare, unnerving sense of intimacy, often titled after the first name of their sitter. “Todd’s portrait Kirsten, seen at Ivan Anthony Gallery in 2000, is a classic, a photograph with a psychological crackle to match Peter Peryer’s early 80s photographs of Erika,” wrote Paton, referring to Todd’s flame-haired, ice-cool subject. “A lot of men liked that picture,” Todd muses, long aware of the alluring poise of her high school friend.
Although Todd is renowned for eerily evocative images, her irreverent wit is the driving force behind her work. Groupie Trophy is a still life of a silver crucifix. The pendant was given to a close friend by infamous rock guitarist Slash, who became besotted with her at a Guns N’ Roses after-party in Auckland in 1992. “Slash wanted to be with her but she said no,” Todd relays knowingly.
Todd’s recent exhibition title Asthma & Eczema reminds me of her memories of chain-smoking strippers, intermittently puffing on asthma inhalers. “I’ve always favoured things that are a bit grim or pathetic. I find cheerful things boring,” she confesses. Sarah-Jane is a formative portrait of Todd’s young cousin wearing the Cinderella-like tatters of her old holographic Showgirls uniform. This work contains an odd sense of pathos, emanating from the threadbare remains of this jaded outfit. “It looks like a frayed grey dish cloth now,” she quips.
Todd’s early work is an autobiographical peep show examining her waitressing career at cheesy Auckland strip venues Stilettos and Showgirls. “My first show, Cabin Fever, had an underlying seedy, burlesque-stripper theme. Now I am going for a more covert, glacial approach to sexuality,” Todd relays. She is a great storyteller and her `secret diary’ is full of Jackie Collins-esque sleaze and intrigue, North Shore-style. “I’ve been inspired by my teenage experiences. The sordid little crises and dramas,” she says.
In one of Todd’s first classic snapshots, three scantily clad ‘ladies’ prepare for another hard night at Stilettos. Todd is the one in an arresting pair of pink gingham bicycle shorts. This naughty pic was taken inside ‘Ken’s Coven’, a small caravan. According to Todd, Ken, the elderly owner, was knowledgeable in witchcraft and kept a steady supply of cask wine available for ‘wayward female visitors’. In a recent email, Todd alleged: “Ken was a dodgy bastard who ended up being evicted from the Takapuna caravan park because of dark rumours that he was a pervert, a thief and a drug dealer.”
Todd is renowned for colour photography and her muted palette recalls the saccharine cover art for Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High novellas. Our friendship was forged over a shared enthusiasm for these pastel illustrations capturing the chilly prestige of two beautiful identical twins with status amid the high school pecking order. In her meticulous portraits, soft feminine colours portray more openly gothic fantasies. Set in an oval inlay, Simone Hartley is a set of sleek bronze nails on a delicate disembodied hand emerging from nowhere. “As a child, I was often mistaken for a boy because of my bowl haircut and the corduroy trousers I had to wear,” Todd confesses. “To me, the immaculately painted and plucked women who worked in the local chemist seemed like aloof, mystical beings.”
The secret of Todd’s success as a female artist is that her work explores femininity rather than feminism. “I’m interested in how women express status to one another and how the act of achieving a certain look isn’t necessarily to attract a man,” explains Todd. Her trademark close-ups of false nails are indelibly linked to Showgirls’ trashy seductive style and her shoots have always involved dressing up. “At Whitecliffe [College of Art and Design], I took a self-portrait as Lizzie Borden, the infamous nineteenth-century axe murderer,” says Todd, who relishes dark, twisted themes. “My tutor was an ex-Playboy photographer and a self-confessed leg man.”
At the same time, she worked in sales at Wig World, a turquoise, box-like shop that reeked of exhaust fumes from an adjacent shopping-mall car park. “The wigs had beguiling names like “Million Dollar”, “Breezy”, “Sassy Cut”, and “Mona Lisa”, yet the customers who tried them on were generally disappointed by their reflections,” she recalls.
Fashion photography was Todd’s first career option. “It seemed glamorous,: she remarks, “and I wanted to be able to combine portraiture and locations with themes that could be totally open.” The reality was quite the opposite and Todd didn’t like compromising her own ideas. “I think I was too anxious and apologetic to promote myself effectively in the fashion world,” she says in hindsight. “I felt like a country hick arriving off the bus in the big city.” Instead, she began moonlighting as a wedding photographer. “A large amount of my commercial work involved photographing people or objects, like brides and cakes, for a wedding magazine. This piqued my interest in accidental relationships between unrelated things.”
Todd’s curious artistic combinations are uncanny, like the tide of her childhood story Ann’s Remote Control Pigeon, a tale she intended to illustrate with snapshots. “I was always disappointed by the shoddy quality of my earliest photographs, not realising that I was significantly hindered by my equipment—an Agfa 110 pocket camera,” she recalls with amusement.
Todd’s conversation is often peppered with wry ideas for new artworks: “I’d like to photograph glamorous women whose eyes are tired and vulnerable looking, like Mariah Carey post-mental breakdown.” I am especially intrigued by her latest enigmatic title, The Riddle of Larry Fortensky, referring to the middle-aged builder Elizabeth Taylor married and promptly divorced in the late 1980s. “I have been searching through old Women’s Weekly magazines for the original photos of their wedding,” says Todd. “Liz was wearing a lemon lace bridal dress and Michael Jackson gave her away!” she exclaims, bemused.
These days, Todd is influenced by books and trash fiction. I once presented her with an ostentatiously wrapped copy of Naomi Campbell’s appalling novel Swan, and Todd’s Ivan Anthony exhibition in 2000 was entitled Lace 2. (We both loved the Lace miniseries, memorable for Phoebe Cates’s unforgiving one-liner, “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”)
The young Todd also harboured a penchant for the Victorian era, unofficially changing her name to Caroline. She was equally obsessed with doomed poet Sylvia Plath. “Past characters haunt me,” Todd muses, “like a girl I knew in high school whose mother was grooming her for stardom. She was only fifteen but her mother decided she was going to marry Cliff Richard! I wish I could have photographed them. They were utterly fascinating.”
Todd thrives on nonfiction, devouring rags-to-riches tales of people who had it all “but were completely fucked up. I liked the Robert Mapplethorpe biography—photography and debauchery inextricably combined,” Todd proclaims. It was to this end, on a midwinter’s afternoon in the gloomy recesses of Albany’s Rosedale Park, that I found myself stranded in my skimpy Showgirls bar uniform. In the background, Todd’s Toyota Corolla was stuck in the muddy precipice of a dismal weed-invested pond, the chosen backdrop for my portrait. We were so engrossed in shooting this incongruous seedy outdoor scenario that all practicalities were forgotten. The car was immobile, Todd’s cellphone was out of credit and I had next to no clothing on. We spent dusk hailing down bemused middle-aged male drivers. I may as well have been at work!
“I wish I’d had film left in my camera. You looked like you were soliciting,” laughed Todd as I limped back from a tow-truck in my white platform lace-up boots.
My last email from Todd arrives during the build-up to her recent Asthma & Eczema show. She writes: “I have been driving around aimlessly trying to find something “magical” to photograph. I’m running out of time but am feeling strangely calm.”
image: Yvonne Todd, from The Menthol Series, 1999.