Yvonne Todd

The five large color photographs in Yvonne Todd’s “Sea of Tranquility” portray women who project varying degrees of disaffection, stoicism, and timidity. Todd applies Revlon-style control to construct the opposite of the bouffant and bouncy. From the youthful but dead-eyed Maven Fuller (all works 2002) to the floating, disembodied Rebecca Weston, she assembles a group of unreachable females, encased in etiquette and up to their necks in lace. Todd’s work suggests a total immersion in artifice, a thralldom to studio photography, but the images offer a fresh view of the aspirations and conventions that portraiture brings together.

The five works conform to a rigid formula that draws on commercial photography’s answer to the monumental-scale ancestral portrait. Trapped in the obscurity that engulfs each figure, the heavily made-up faces are surrounded by wigs, bridal clothing, and other accoutrements of femininity. They are voluptuous only in the darkness of the emotional range they project. Heads and bodies are separated at the neck; the clothing looks uninhabited. The face in Susan Blunton levitates over a pin-tucked blouse as immovable as the surface of a wedding cake, while hair lankly delineates shoulders that vanish into the background of Rebecca Weston. With only minor digital retouching, those women appear more waxlike than the inhabitants of Madame Tussaud’s as photographed by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Yet instead of analytically pulling codes apart in the manner of post–Cindy Sherman photography, Todd seamlessly reassembles the elements of her chosen genre and invests them with feeling. Blending austerity and melodrama, she pushes her subjects and format to the brink of recognizability and cultivates a visual equivalent to the incomprehension we sometimes feel at the strange behavior of others or, more chillingly, ourselves.

The complex tone of “Sea of Tranquility” is made explicit in titles that echo the overall impression of dislocation. Like those of porn stars or characters in a Janet Frame novel, the names of the portraits are flat and mysterious. The consonant-starved first name and diminutive surname of sluggish-looking Emerey Weschlette suggest nail files and inflammable fabric. Alice Bayke could be one of Walker Evans’s impoverished rural subjects, saved from home cooking by the y in her surname. Susan Blunton combines blunt and bludgeon. Like the discomforting soap-operatic title “Sea of Tranquility,” the names of these characters tap into the emotional undercurrents of conventionality.

Ultimately the five works may be one. Their reductive formal treatment suggests a study of typology. The uniform blackness in which the subjects are suspended looks like Todd’s answer to the Bechers’ overcast day. Like her earlier Cheer, 2001, a Photoshopped image of female hairstyles secured by bobbles, lace, and other decorative accessories that seemed to recall Hogarth, “Sea of Tranquility” allows us to compare and contrast with ruthless scrutiny: Who is the most zombielike? Most withdrawn? Least able to make sense of her situation? Cruel stereotypes are rehearsed, albeit with an ambiguous touch. The youngest and conceivably most damaged is blond; the oldest (or perhaps most depressive) is brunet. Todd’s five works are heavy with the social claustrophobia associated with the premarital phase in a romance heroine’s life, though Todd’s lightness of touch suggests that these images would not claim to represent everywoman’s emotional inheritance. They may not even represent every reader’s emotional inheritance, but in their dreamlike reworking of the ordinary and ancestral they capture an iconic spectrum.

Anna Miles