Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Poignant portrait

Yvonne Todd: Dawn of Gland
Ivan Anthony
14 August – 6 September 2008

Yvonne Todd seems to construct the titles of her images and exhibitions with great care. This one, Dawn of Gland, has an inbuilt oscillation, a wavering between a romantic prehistory (Dawn of Land) and the grossly pornographic (Dawn of Glans).

Okay, so you think I’m being irresponsible, calculatedly provocative? Well think about this. The key work in the show is a self portrait of the artist made up as Christine Onassis, the unhappy multi-millionaire who died young. It is a very unusual photograph in that it is in the tradition of painting and at odds with the rest of the exhibition which uses photographic coding.

It has a precursor made three years ago and not in this exhibition, that seems to connect to American pop art, especially the work made by the late Tom Wesselman. More importantly, this photograph, not a portrait of any type, seems to be about men who like to masturbate between women’s breasts. It manipulates an array of signs to beckon to them – not out of critique but out of a sense of control and gleeful teasing. The Coca Cola bottle is deliberately aligned close to the plump cleavage. The artist is laughing at them a little, but really more with them. The phenomenon of male hetero desire clearly fascinates. Again like this show’s title we have an oscillation, and a reference to the pornographic imagination. It’s wickedly sly.

There is one work here specifically about fetishism, though it could be interpreted as being about fashion. It is a boot–stocking hybrid, the strangest of footwear that has a high heel, a lacy back and a lace-up pink cord. This object of worship doesn’t seem to have a real leg inserted into it. Real people aren’t needed. It has a piece of carefully shaped cardboard.

The other two works have different moods. One shows a carefully made-up woman in seventies apparel coolly appraising herself in the mirror, her reflection just under life size. The dynamic between model and reflection (we see no glass) brings a wonderful tension to a somewhat serene image.

Todd’s other work, is about careful placement of limbs (much like André Kertész) but amusingly set against meticulously devised eye reflections. Despite the model’s seventies makeup and wig, she seems to be wearing a bizarre music hall item from the flapper era. Though her face is impassive her eyes are red as if she has been crying.

The Onassis portrait is not as icy as Todd’s usual photographs. Despite its being a thoroughly prepared construction it has emotional immediacy, for the sitter radiates a tremulous vulnerability – via a ‘European’ as opposed to ‘Antipodean’ face. (Native English speakers tend to only use facial muscles from below their noses. They don’t ‘activate’ their whole faces when conversing.) It has a brittleness, a quaver in its expression that of the four photographs makes it the easiest to remember.

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