Creamy Psychology Opening, City Gallery Wellington, 2014
“That’s quite Yvonne Todd”, a staff member said. I looked up. It was 2010 and I was out the back of the then Borders store on Lambton Quay loading books onto a trolley. The staff member didn’t realise she was in the presence of someone who felt uniquely qualified to judge what is or isn’t ‘Yvonne Todd’. It’s not the first or last time I’ve heard people—strangers—use this phrase. ‘That’s quite Yvonne Todd’ is used to denote the tone or timbre of an off-kilter image or experience. On Twitter, I often see comments about what people would like Yvonne Todd to photograph next. Not so long ago, it was the royal portrait of Kate Middleton.
Creamy Psychology is an exhibition that investigates what we mean when we say, ‘That’s quite Yvonne Todd.’ It also investigates why people—strangers—are out there using her work as a frame of reference. Only the great artists become compass points in the culture. It’s rare for an artist’s name alone to summon an entire sensibility and despite our current emphasis on professionalism, networking, MFAs, PhDs, selfies, it’s something you can’t ultimately orchestrate.
Since winning the inaugural Walters Prize in 2002, Yvonne has expanded her persuasive often irreverent, buxom-toothed, sometimes even neck-braced, yet unashamedly feminine worldview.
The Sea of Tranquillity is no longer just the site on the moon where Neil Armstrong—allegedly—touched down, it’s also Todd’s series of troubled young women styled in the era of the 1960s and photographed against black backgrounds that evoke the terminal velocity of space. Like Alice Bayke, her frosted wedding gown somehow redolent of the moon’s lunar surface, a different site for an astronaut to touch down. I wager Alice is no less in orbit than Neil.
Todd does good men too. Who could forget the nebulous charisma of the otherwise anonymous Sales Executive or the piss-tinted glasses of the Retired Urologist in The Wall of Man? Working in the book industry, I’m especially endeared to Todd’s vision of the Publisher. He wears a white turtleneck that seems as ingratiating as his smile. He represents the corduroyed end of the corporate world. Though I notice his hair is much shorter than Fergus Barrowman’s, publisher of the Creamy Psychology book on sale tonight.
Todd’s self-portraits are rare but also revealing. In Greasy Harpist, she is posed in a flowing classical gown and stands next to the equally classical harp, which matches, perhaps even overshadows, her stature. The harp is all consuming. Commitment to an art form demands more than elbow grease.
In 2004, art critic Anthony Byrt called Todd the best New Zealand artist of her generation. I agree. Yvonne’s quiet steel has served her well in managing the challenges of early artistic success. I recall she was offered the opportunity to pose for Australia’s FHM magazine after winning the Walters Prize. My husband at the time said to me: “If it were you, you would have done it.” It’s important to note, in Yvonne’s work, only the psychology is creamy.
When we were discussing the show, Robert Leonard said there are those who are inside the cult, like me, where it all makes sense, and those who are outside the cult, looking in—but the power of attraction is no less acute. For instance, when Robert looks at Cheer, a photograph of the back of six female heads (maybe cheerleaders), he is reminded of a New Zealand performance artist who once cut off a girl’s ponytail and presented it as a work of art—a brutal reversal of pin the tail on the donkey. When I look at Cheer, I recall inspecting the hairstyles of girls seated before me in school assembly. I understand the status, the mangled aspirations, entailed in ponytail accessories.
Yvonne’s work has been called many things over the years—suburban gothic, “an odalisque of awkwardness”—and also said to exemplify the North Shore’s unique point of view. But, its wider belonging is to the late-twentieth century, as summarised by Harald Szeemann, who was so memorably irritated by her image of the Warkworth Satellite Earth Station, tilted towards space; a photograph called Quaalude Eyes.
The big moment for me came several years before the Walters Prize, in 1998, when I saw her exhibition Fleshtone at Rm3 Gallery, then located out the back of the Real Groovy building on Queen Street. The close up of a Kent wood fire bluely ablaze was somehow the clincher that day. “Where is she?”, I said. “I have to meet her.”
To imagine New Zealand art without the body of work that lies ahead in these rooms of City Gallery is impossible for me. I know many of us here tonight feel the same way. Yvonne Todd’s Creamy Psychology has made our world a more interesting place to be.
image: Yvonne Todd, Alice Bayke, from the Sea of Tranquility 2002.