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 27, 2009

What's in a Face?

Yvonne Todd: The Wall of Man
Ivan Anthony
26 August – 26 September 2009

When meeting any stranger for the first time - even before the mandatory handshake and icebreaking vocal greeting - how do we respond during that split-second interaction of eye contact, a flash within which we appraise each other’s facial physiognomy, demeanour, hairstyle and clothing? What preconceived notions kick in to overwhelm us initially, only to then perhaps be gradually adjusted or abandoned over the next few minutes or hours? And can an interpretable face ever be ‘natural’ without extras, cosmetic or surgical, anyway? Does such a ‘pure’ visage exist in reality, ever?

The Yvonne Todd portraits here are unusual in that they are all of men, middle aged to elderly, who are very formally dressed and thus ‘corporate’. To construct the photographs she has picked out models, chosen their clothing and organised various props, like fountain pens or leather sofas. Then she has picked backdrops, considered methods of lighting, and composed ‘career-status’ titles.

Yet these works are in a sense abstractions, formal not just in their tone or degree of solemnity, but also in their manipulation of visual dynamics. Many have strategically placed white hair, white collars and white cuffs, with glowing McCahonesque morning light emanating from behind their hill-like, besuited executive shoulders.

Others are conceptual clichés, Hollywood stereotypes: a Retired Urologist in dark glasses could really be a hitman from The Sopranos; his neighbour, a blue-eyed International Sales Director, is actually a professional gigolo and part-time porn star from Beverley Hills; the wizened ‘Mr. Magoo’ Hospital Director is in fact a fiendish Nazi medical ‘experimenter’ hiding in Argentina.

Apart from facial templates that could be fancifully derived from the entertainment industry, or more prosaic business models ubiquitous downtown, you can tell Todd has had fun picking out accoutrements like gorgeous silk ties and heavy shirt fabrics. She seems to enjoy the sensuality of these materials, almost for their own sake and not for sociological coding. And everything is believable - there is no satirical excess as is often found in her use of women models wearing voluminous apparel, oddball make-up or excessive wigs.

Perhaps though, the believability of these male business portraits is a problem. Even though some are large and unusually detailed compared to other studio photographs, chances are most people, even art lovers familiar with Todd’s practice, wouldn’t be able to pick her examples out from a selection of ‘normal’ images taken of prosperous individuals by other professionals. Her images of selected models blend so well into a pool of documented ‘authentic’ subjects that Todd seems to be shooting herself in the foot in this project. The work seems excessively bland. Unless she wants to be a hard-core conceptualist where the idea has priority over visual attributes, and optical qualities are not of value. That is a possibility, but one that I think – from looking at her track record - is highly unlikely.

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