Yvonne Todd – Creamy Psychology

Over Christmas in Wellington, I managed to get to see Auckland photographer Yvonne Todd’s exhibition, Creamy Psychology, at City Gallery.  The exhibition, a survey of her career so far, fills the entire gallery on both levels, it provides an interesting overview of the breadth of her work and includes one space given over to the sources of her inspiration.

Todd’s photography makes for uneasy viewing, it is the kind of work that settles into your head and stays with you like a catchy tune you can’t stop humming even though you can’t quite remember where you picked it up.  Certainly I have been wondering about how I’d write about it for days now, only to wake at 3am, struck with a need to get it all down.

The overriding thing that, for me, typifies her aesthetic is an uncomfortable sense that all is not well. The psychological in Todd’s work is eerily evident, but hard to exactly pinpoint. Behind the made-up faces of bored or awkward looking young women is something just a little disconcerting, something that perhaps they don’t know is there. This unease permeates her other subject matter also, there is a sense of being cast adrift, out of place in time or space.

The unnerving familiarity of the work is for me a little close to home as like Todd I grew up on Auckland’s North Shore. Formerly a popular area for holidaying by the calmer eastern facing beaches, this sleepy collection of suburbs was finally made accessible in 1959 when construction of the Auckland Harbour Bridge was finished. The North Shore Hospital (hardly a remarkable building in the greater scheme) resides modestly over the Shore as one of the most distinctive (and for many years one of the tallest) buildings.The iconic character villas of the central Auckland suburbs are a rarity on the Shore where most of the housing is post 1950s construction which gives the neighbourhoods a completely different feel to their over the bridge ‘town’ counterparts. The North Shore still represents a sort of middle-class safety. The madness of suburbia is perpetual waiting.

Yvonne Todd Tide

Yvonne Todd, 2003. Tide [C-type print, 35.4 x 43.2]

It makes sense that this setting was the incubator for Todd’s psychology. I can’t help but sympathise with the desperately uncool new-age nostalgia for time periods not yet distant enough to be truly romanticised. The young women she often depicts exude either a boredom or a anxious awkwardness that is hauntingly familiar of my own experience.  When I talk to other expatriates of the Shore, childhood was remarkably similar, usually culminating in gravitating towards a friend with a car in which we could get somewhere else.

Yvonne Todd Wet Sock

Yvonne Todd, 2005. Wet sock [C-type print, 36 x 28.6cm]

Wet sock (2005) has long been my favourite of Todd’s works, and at lying in bed at 3am I might have unlocked why. It is a personal memory I haven’t thought about in a long time. I am nine or ten years old, waiting to picked up from primary school. It is a warmer day on the tail end of winter.  The afternoon stretches like an eternity in the almost empty playground and a friend dares me to join her in an experiment. We fill our shoes with water from the drinking fountain, and put our socked feet back inside them.  I have never done this since, but I can still very clearly feel that moment, the clingy wetness of my soaked socks, the water escaping between my toes and around the edges of the shoe, the delicious squelch as I walked around.  Filled with a secret puckish glee, I concealed this misdemeanour from my mum, wiggling my wet toes unnoticed on the car ride home. My first (perhaps even my only) soggy little rebellion.

September seminar studio work

I like to look back on work with a bit of distance, so here, belatedly, are some images of my studio work critiqued in the September seminar. (With the added benefit of being beautifully photographed by Lea Schlatter).

September was a work-in-progress seminar, and additionally it was the seminar in which the part four students had to deliver Oral Presentations.  In the short period between July and September my main focus was on creating the presentation, but I wanted to experiment with a couple of ideas, and decided to test out a book format.

Trace book 2   Trace book

Justine Giles, 2014. Untitled (Book of traces) [ink, ballpoint, coloured pencil,    graphite on detail paper, 110 x 175mm (closed)]

The first is a little fourteen page book of transparent paper with book inscriptions (or part inscriptions) on each page. The writing can be see through several layers, though not all of them, which means that as you flick through the book the layered images shift with the pages.

I was interested in seeing what would happen if all these pages that had be altered with handwriting were all together in one place, a concatenation of sentiments, built upon each other, and yet still separate.

Indigo a fiction 3Indigo a fiction 2 Indigo a fiction 1

Justine Giles, 2014. Indigo: A Fiction [mixed media, 137 x 205 x 20mm (closed)]

The second book was a different project based on the theme Indigo. I became interested in Isaac Newton’s inclusion of Indigo as a colour in the spectrum and the subsequent controversy over whether it was a unique colour at all.  The suggestion being (as I’ve written about before) that he wanted very much to find seven colours in the spectrum (because seven was a significant number at the time) and finding only six he is said to have invented Indigo (named after a dye).  It interested me in part because my partner is colour blind and one of the things he has difficulty with is shades of blue, and also because I associated the story in my head with Rebecca Solnit’s Field guide to getting lost where she uses the evocative phrases “the blue of longing” and “the blue of distance” to describe how things at a distance (such as mountains) seem blue, but are no longer blue when you reach them.

I loved the idea that Indigo could be the colour that sits between reality and fiction, known, visible, but somehow contested anyway.


The books were a misstep.

I had been so focussed on the subject that I didn’t pay enough heed to either form or content.  The one-to-one relationship (i.e. books about books) was pointed out as being distracting, and in hindsight I absolutely agree.  It is too easy to miss the subject because the form is so dominating.  The book format, because it is familiar, is also very leading.  Viewers want to read the work in a linear way, which closes it down to one prescribed interaction.

Where other work has been more successful is where they have suggested books while being present as something else. This is a better way of addressing the concept of trace because trace is a transformation not a reiteration. My work is not necessarily about books in a literal sense, but these works made that really unclear.

Sometimes the most useful lessons are learned in walking down the wrong path for a while, because at the very least it helps in identifying what the right path might look like. Understanding what went wrong and why is critical for being able to pick up and progress further.  Mistakes aren’t failures.

It is a platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking. A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see.

(Berger, 1960, p. 23).

Peter Mendelsund: What we see when we read

My flatmate, (a high school English teacher with a weakness (?) for purchasing strange books from a range of genres), being a sometimes captive audience to my madness research, has become adept at recommending me interesting texts.  The latest one was Peter Mendelsund’s What we see when we read (2014).

Mendelsund is a designer and a writer, and the book is as much a visual text as it is a text text.  Which is refreshingly easy on the brain (although that might be the Masters hangover talking) despite some of the ideas being quite conceptual. Perhaps it feels that way because there is more of a left brain / right brain sharing of the load?

What is brilliant about the book is that it so easily and eloquently points out what should be the bleeding obvious (but isn’t) so that I found myself racing through it thinking, “yes, yes, yes” and feeling like I completely understood in a series of those “light bulb” moments, helped along by his images (oh hello pictures, I’ve missed you so).

Mendelsund exposes the completely different way we “see” when we read, which allows us to imagine characters or scenes without having to pin them down to exacting detail.  He points out how personalised the reading experience is, and the way in which an author will describe a character or scene in a way that is suggestive, allowing the reader to be party to the creation of the experience:

Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader. Words “contain” meanings, but, more important, words potentiate meaning…

(Mendelsund, 2014, p.302).

In her book Faraway nearby (2013) Rebecca Solnit expresses a similar thought on text as potential:

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is in the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another.

(Solnit, 2013, p. 63).

The experience of writing then is to create art that is finished by the reader.  Writing isn’t meant to replicate reality, it can’t replicate reality can it? Because text is always dependent on what the reader does with it in the realms of their own thoughts and imagination. Mendelsund even suggests that perhaps in mimicking the real world, literature draws attention to its inauthenticity (2014, p. 356).  There are some really lovely passages in this book, that I could have gone a bit quote-crazy over (but I managed to resist! Hurrah. Go read the book and find your own quotes) and the accompanying imagery for the most part strikes a good balance of being suggestive without being too illustrative.

What we see when we read made me think about how words can deliver meaning without dictating it, and made me consider the way in which we weave meaning out of the slightest of cues.  Not just when reading, but in how we view art, and how we construct identity (of ourselves and others) through the stories we tell.