All around town you can see freaky ladies, with awkward smiles, and dead gazes watching you from billboards, Yvonne Todd’s exhibition Creamy Psychology has injected a weird and wonderful gothic presence into the capital this summer. But with the exhibition coming to a close soon, it is worth taking stock of the books that had an impact upon the development of Todd’s work. For within these books, the same mixture of constructed beauty, fragmented vanity, and uncomfortable subject matter beautifully merge.
The books in question are those that operate in the “guilty pleasure” section of our libraries, the books where the subject matter is a particularly dreadful mixture of vanity and villainy. They are the books of “pulp fiction”, which fill you up and leave you empty at the same time; they are the McDonalds of literature. From the wholesome and gossip worthy Sweet Valley High series, to the trashy horrors of Virginia Andrews, and the passive terror of the Valley of the Dolls, each has a particular place within this terrifically terrifying exhibition. These novels capture the same part of your imagination that is reserved for Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Hoarders.
The Sweet Valley High series can be found in op-shops; it captured the imagination of so many teenagers through the 1980s and really drove home the idea that beauty isn’t everything, especially if you have beauty and brains. It followed two equally beautiful twin sisters, who have marginally different personalities, save for where they fall on the nerd and cool kid spectrum. Their lives are full of dramas surrounding the boys they date and cheat on, the friends they gain and betray.
The duality between the sisters, Elizabeth (the studious, serious, kind, and patient one) and Jessica (the more “wild” one who likes boys and gossiping, appears shallow, but is like totally deep as well) gives the reader a full spectrum of available characters for females, either the virgin or the whore. Todd is obviously drawn to this limited duality, as she constructs images with classically “beautiful” accoutrements, and yet produces an ever so slightly gross image.
- SPONSORED -
The stories of VC Andrews are even more extreme. They take the complexities of the Sweet Valley High female characters, and push them to further boundaries of the gross. Her work follows similar threads of secrecy, forbidden love (especially incest), and often follows a classic structure of rags-to-riches. Her stories are a perfect marriage between the Gothic horror and the soap-operatic family saga.
Her most famous work was Flowers in the Attic, a tale that follows a jealous mother and grandmother who push their cripplingly beautiful children into a life in the attic. While living in the attic, one of the children dies, and the eldest son and daughter fall in love—just your classic love story right? The terror of the situation seems to be enhanced by the beauty of the characters subjected to it.
The film version of Valley of the Dolls plays on loop in one the rooms of the exhibition. Based on the 1966 Jacquelin Smith novel, it dramatises the drug use and doll-like role of women in the Hollywood world. Used as toys, passed around and manipulated, they rely on stimulants to operate; these women are a living construction.
Throughout Creamy Psychology the act of construction is played out through the staging of the shots. The generic visual language of studio photography is present in the use of props, screens, stylised sets, and physically uncomfortable positions. The novels, along with Todd’s photographed characters, have a complicated relationship to feminism, as they provoke questions regarding the construction of female identity, and the nature of artifice within such an identity.
The books make a fascinating sideline to this exhibition; their lasting impact upon Todd can be seen as she negotiates the space between substance and surface. She has infused the characters within her work with an ugly beauty, which is in itself an enactment of the destructive forces of beauty and ornament, the power of the surface to disguise what lies beneath.
The novels are brandished as trashy and meaningless; much like their female protagonists, they are derided for their largely ornamental and sensational existence. Yet within the ivory walls of the Wellington City Art Gallery, Todd examines these tropes of female identity and construction, breathing a fresh, and somewhat disturbing lack of life into them, elevating them to a gallery-worthy position.