Yvonne Todd, Sand Forms, 2014, C-type print, 34 × 40".

Yvonne Todd, Sand Forms, 2014, C-type print, 34 × 40".

Yvonne Todd

Yvonne Todd hit the New Zealand art scene in the early 2000s, and from the start she has been celebrated for bringing a touch of perversity to the traditional photographic genres of portraiture, still life, and landscape. Using a large-format camera, she deploys the slick artifice of studio portraiture and product photography to create images at once glamorous and sinister, generic and oddball.

Todd’s recent exhibition, “‘Choux’: Still Lifes, 2006–2018,” presented eight still lifes. Such works have not garnered quite as much attention as the artist’s glamour portraits of young women. The latter deserve mention here because Todd imbues inanimate objects with more personality than she does her human subjects. A sly dig at beauty culture, the portraits depict women costumed in flowing wigs, heavy makeup, and elaborate, outdated fashions. Take Frenzy, 2006: A young model reclines in a dreary cement-block basement, her body enveloped in an outlandish 1980s dress of ruffled and beribboned plaid taffeta, with a high Victorian collar. A light-kissed pageboy hairdo frames the woman’s vapid gaze. As usual with Todd’s work, a noisome detail sabotages the hyperstyling of feminine beauty: The model’s seductively parted lips reveal protruding prosthetic teeth that Todd says remind her of spider’s eyes.

Like her portraits, Todd’s still lifes evidence a fascination with the tricks that advertising photographers use to bring enchantment to their subjects, no matter how mundane. With the black-and-white image Crepuscular Ice, 2009, Todd created something miraculous out of the fake ice used in product advertising. Torn fragments of this material, bathed in chiaroscuro lighting and shot in extreme close-up, sit atop a black ground. The effect suggests crystals floating in a void or some kind of galactic explosion. The oddity in Todd’s still lifes is often subtle, comprising offbeat combinations of objects, settings, and framing devices. In The Later Melon, 2014, the faked naturalism of a dew-dappled watermelon jolted with the crinkled sheet of high-tech Mylar on which the fruit sits. Insistence, 2013, was a sharply focused color image of a trio of raw vegetables. A carrot leans on a diagonal against an upright corncob with a button mushroom placed between them. The precise arrangement of produce and uniform lighting recall the chilly perfection of Irving Penn’s food photos. However, unlike Penn’s, Todd’s vegetables impart a whiff of psychological significance. As the title Insistence hints, the carrot appears to be cozying up to the corncob, with the diminutive mushroom completing a wholesome family unit. But the most perverse element is the floral clip-art border—Todd describes it as “diabolical”—that frames the vegetables.

For Sand Forms, 2014, Todd used geometric forms (a cone, a sphere, and a cylinder) reminiscent of those in some of Paul Outerbridge’s still lifes, but coated them with brown, earthlike sand from Takapuna Beach, near where she grew up in north Auckland creating a striking contrast between the shapes’ geometry and their friable, textured surfaces. The volumes loom against seamless color fields of delicate pink and mauve, with the larger forms, the cone and sphere, standing together on the left, while the much smaller cylinder is isolated on the far right. As in so many of Todd’s genre photographs, it is the outlier feature that demands our attention.

Toni Ross