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Sick art

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Creamy Psychology

Yvonne Todd

Published by Victoria University Press, 2015

Reviewed by Anna Jackson-Scott

Yvonne Todd: Creamy Psychology, installation view, City Gallery Wellington, 2014

'I don't know if I could say that I like it,' my companion said as we crept through the Yvonne Todd exhibition at the City Gallery Wellington, as one might creep, afraid to touch the walls, through an abandoned house scuttling with spiders. 'It’s interesting.' We’ve since returned twice. This sums up the disturbing atmosphere of Creamy Psychology: it’s creepy, yet compelling.

Todd is arguably New Zealand’s most prominent female photographer. She became the first Walters Award winner in 2002 at 28 years old; Judge Harald Szeemann awarded her because it was 'the work that irritated me the most’. She is known for her portraits of artificial, constructed female characters that ooze a psychological malaise one imagines only a tragic celebrity could truly understand.

Creamy Psychology, Victoria University Press

This sleek 260 page accompaniment, edited by curator Robert Leonard, perfectly captures the essence of the exhibition. It surveys Todd's work since the late 1990s. Glossy photographs of characteristic Todd women, seemingly sick with psychological distress, are joined by more recent series: Ethical Minorities (2014), portraits of actual vegans intended to question the ability to distinguish the ‘different’ from the ‘normal’; The Wall of Man (2009), a series of older men artificially dressed as executives, and Seahorsel (2012), showing pseudo interpretive dancers in awkward postures. Clammy Pipes (2006), the self-explanatory Crumbed Hand (1998), and a young Todd playing the flute in front of a Christmas tree, self-labelled: ‘me, Takapuna, 1983, most likely playing a shrill, laboured Christmas carol,’ further exemplify Todd’s quirky aesthetic.

New essays by critics give the book a stand-alone potency, building context and deepening understanding and appreciation of Todd’s work. Todd opens with the essay ‘Do I even like photography?’, which provides insight to her evolving oeuvre, and her writing reveals a disarming sociological awareness. The other essays provide thought-provoking comment on Todd’s work in relation to topics ranging from soap operas and anorexia to cults and costumes. Archived essays and an exhibition history close the book.

This is a visually appealing, intelligent and comprehensive guide that approaches Todd through a contemporary lens. If you missed the exhibition, or have a desire, as I do, to return again and again to stare into the disturbingly false-toothed, wigged, but oddly appealing faces, then Creamy Psychology is the ultimate companion.

First published ArtZone #58

Anna Jackson-Scott is a writer.

She realised early on that she can't make art, so she writes about it.

That's a kind of art, right?


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