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August 18, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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An Interview with Yvonne Todd

Initially trained in commercial photography, Yvonne Todd deploys the visual language of female representation to disrupt and unsettle. Todd has exhibited internationally and was the recipient of the 2002 Walter’s Prize. At the end of this month, her work will be shown alongside pieces from Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine and Ava Seymour at the Peter McLeavey Popup gallery. I recently emailed her to find out more about her relationship with Peter McLeavey, and the role of politics in her work.

1) Could you tell me what work of yours we can expect to see in the show?
There will be three images of mine in the show; Pipe Study, 2008, a large photograph of an anonymous female figure in a beaded evening gown, flanked by outsized plastic plumbing pipes; Pipe Face Prototype, also 2008, a close up of the model from Pipe Study’s face, with digitally collaged protruding teeth and starburst eyes; and Sand Forms, 2014, a new still life image of a sand-encrusted sphere, cone, and cylinder, placed in a manufactured studio environment. These familiar, quasi-mathematical forms are rendered enigmatic and obscure, their inexplicable nature amplified by a language of slick product photography that insists that they are significant. However, this insistence is impotent—nothing is revealed. Sand Forms is my first attempt at shooting on an 8×10 camera, which means the quality of the image is (hopefully) extremely sharp and detailed. I haven’t yet seen the final print, but it should go to plan.

2) How were these particular works chosen, and how do they interact to the other artists featured in the show?
The works were chosen by Olivia and Peter McLeavey, to be viewed alongside three other female artists work; Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, and Ava Seymour. As for how they interact, I guess that will be revealed when the show opens on August 26.

3) Can you discuss your artistic training, how and why you decided to be an artist, who are some of your major influences?
I studied photography for three years, hoping to be an editorial/advertising photographer at the culmination of my training. It became apparent that I had no aptitude for this. Realising other people’s dreams and visions wasn’t really working out for me. I began exhibiting in artist-run spaces in Auckland and things fell into place from there.

During my formative years as a photography student I was a big fan of Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, Inez van Lamsweerde, Richard Avedon, and Robert Mapplethorpe. I have also always enjoyed social documentary photography, probably because it’s not something I do myself. And studio portraiture from the Victorian era. Mainly because of the clothes. Another favourite is Mike Disfarmer, a little-known American photographer who ran a portrait studio in a small rural community in Arkansas in the 1940’s. His portraits have a hardscrabble austerity that really appeals to me. I also love the work of August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher. And Irving Penn’s hard, chic still life photographs. I also enjoy commercial photography and advertising imagery, no matter how bad. Especially if it’s bad, actually.

4) In 2002, Peter McLeavey described you, along with Andrew McLeod, Brendon Wilkinson, Lis Maw and Ava Seymour, as ‘Our art Datsuns … I do feel that the tectonic plates are shifting here and a younger (hungrier and gifted) group are now claiming their birthright.’ How did you first meet McLeavey?
My connection with Peter came about after he purchased one of my photographs in 2000 and contacted me soon afterwards by formal, typed letter to enquire about a possible meeting. Fortunately I was rather naïve and had no idea of his importance and stature, so I didn’t try too hard at the meeting and blow it by being desperate and needy. We didn’t really talk about art or photography at all. It was like catching up with someone I’ve always known for a casual chat. About a year afterwards, I had my first exhibition at the McLeavey Gallery.

5) The press release for the show frames I Like Girls as an overtly political exercise. What is the role of politics in your work?
My work usually stems from something that resonates in my memory or imagination. Often it’s vague and fragmentary. It isn’t specifically driven by politics, but there are by-products of it pervading my images. My 2009 series The Wall of Man, for example, speaks to corporate culture and identity, the senior male, rendered infallible, and why this may be problematic. I’ve recently photographed a series of portraits of vegans, which is more politically centred, especially as New Zealand’s economy is entrenched in animal protein and live animal exports. I’m asking the viewer to consider another perspective when looking at the work. Why are vegans regarded as fringe weirdos? Why is the consumption of animal flesh and cow’s milk normalised? I would also like to photograph Fonterra executives but that’s probably never going to happen.

I Like Girls opens at the Peter McLeavey Popup (cnr Webb St/Torrens Tce) 26 August.

Related: Ava Seymour interview

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