Tod studied in Toronto at the Ontario College of Art during the mid-1970s, at the height of conceptualism – a period in art when painting was being questioned for its indebtedness to the traditions of representation. Tod embraced the theories of the time by examining the role of painting through painting itself. While her realism carries on conventions of the medium, her subject matter is firmly tied to contemporary discourse and ideas, with themes that critique such topical issues as social and ethnic identity, cultural appropriation, feminism, and corporate and political power.
Her earliest paintings were ambitious renderings of interiors mixed with images gleaned from subculture magazines and current news. In 1978, for her first solo show, held at YYZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto, Tod exhibited Mao: Six Uncommissioned Portraits, based on newswire photographs of the Communist Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung shaking hands with visiting dignitaries, including U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972. The series rendered Mao and his political counterparts with the kind of clarity associated with propaganda posters, though they appear on backgrounds of flat abstract colour. The visual contrast between foreground and background reads as a critique of the theoretical shifts happening in the art world at that time, between representation and abstraction. Many of the ideas explored in the Mao series are still at the core of Tod’s practice, especially her fascination with the visual and intellectual friction between popular imagery and the fine art world in which she inhabits, as an artist, a professor, and board member of various art institutions.
Another element that characterizes her work is scale. Her paintings are oftentimes massive and communicate authority, while also referencing a similar spatial presence like a movie screen or billboard. Interiors, which are a recurring subject, especially institutional hallways, have been referred to as “walk in” spaces, due to the sensation of being able to step right into the frame. Technically, they are rendered to near photographic likeness, yet her measured brushstrokes remain visible, allowing realism and the artist’s hand to cohabitate. A similar kind of frisson appears in her titles, which are lyrical and poetic rather than descriptive, as if to remind us that interpretation isn’t restricted to the artist’s intention.