One of the hallmarks of Nancy Youdelman’s work is its honest, personal accessibility, which gives her mixed media sculptures and reliefs a captivating, self-sufficient beauty. But while Youdelman, who teaches art at Fresno State, intently and modestly continues to hone her craft, the art world has begun to focus renewed attention on her significant contributions to the feminist art movement of the 1970s.
Youdelman was recently included in the 2009 exhibition and catalogue A Studio of Their Own: The Legacy of the Fresno Feminist Experiment. In 1970 Judy Chicago led fifteen students (including Youdelman) in the founding of the nation’s first feminist art program at California State University, Fresno, which has proven to have an enduring legacy in contemporary art and helped pioneer key strategies of the nascent feminist art movement, including collaboration and the use of “female technologies” such as performance, costume and sewing – concepts that still inform Youdelman’s work to this day.
What began in Fresno continued at CalArts with the Feminist Art Program and the groundbreaking collaborative art installation Womanhouse, of which Youdelman was a key member. Youdelman went on shortly thereafter to participate in the feminist art network Double X and The Woman’s Building, a non-profit center for art, education and community.
Outside the Realm takes its title from a Marcel Proust quote, who wrote that “The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.”
Youdelman’s recent sculpture combines dresses, shoes and undergarments with a variety of organic, domestic and found materials. Eliza May 1896 is a bronzed baby shoe emblazoned with antique photographs; Family Secrets covers a formal dress with colorful snapshots, buttons and other personal artifacts. With Zippers and Pins, she armors a floor-length gown with thousands of the shiny, colorful metal pieces. In her work, Youdelman displays her broad base of knowledge and education – in addition to working alongside feminist art pioneers, she studied social work, English literature, theater, costume and art before pursuing a career as an artist and teacher.
Art historian Laura Meyer, the curator of A Studio of their Own, addresses Youdelman’s long-term use of vintage clothing in her work, saying “Clothing is also a peculiarly vivid reminder of loss. As the envelope of an absent body, it is a constant reminder of temps perdu, a fetish object that testifies to absence through its very presence….The garments that formerly protected, decorated, and defined that person’s body have the capacity to endure across time.”
One powerful influence on Youdelman’s fascination with garments and other personal effects came from her own childhood. After the death of her father when she was nine, Youdelman would have picnics at his gravesite with her mother and sister, walking about the cemetery and wondering about the people buried beneath the grave markers. As she explains:
“Is is a source of deep thought for me: we are born, experience many things, have deep desires and then poof—we die. Our personal effects remain: photos, clothing and various objects still exist in the world even though we are no longer here,” Youdelman says. “My desire is to create an expressive artwork that can be beautiful yet bittersweet and sometimes disquieting, giving homage to a distant past.”
Youdelman studied Theatrical Costume & Make-up, Art and English Literature at CSU Fresno before earning a B.A. from Cal Arts and an M.F.A. from UCLA. She has taught at colleges throughout California. She has written for and edited art magazines and books, been a mainstay in the LA and Fresno art scenes and even served as artistic consultant for a Rolling Stones concert. She has been honored with numerous awards, including grants from the Pollock-Krasner and the Gottlieb Foundations.
(Images: Nancy Youdelman, Buttons & Threads, Mixed Media Relief, 22.5 x 23.5 x 3 in; Zippers and Pins, 2009, Mixed Media Relief with Encaustic, 54 x 37 x 4 in ; Eliza May 1896, 2006, Mixed Media, 2.25 x 4.75 x 2.25 in; Where is Betty Ann?, 2011, Mixed Media Relief with Encaustic, 32 x 28.5 x 3.5 in; Thorne Shoe, 2005, Mixed Media, 10 x 10 x 3 in; Courtesy of the artist and EightModern)