Nancy Youdelman: Outside the Realm

Marina La Palma

Outside the Realm takes its title from a Marcel Proust quote, “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.” Nancy Youdelman continues to take on questions of the female body and identity, and the sensations they give us, using the outdated detritus of social femininity— specifically cast-off clothing. Titles such as Nothing is Ever Really Lost give clues to at least one aspect of the artist’s motivations.  Familiar forms are placed in odd juxtapositions that point to how social identity—changing but always in great measure arbitrary—is constructed and historical. Youdelman’s Applied Arts juggernaut takes the form of assemblages, reliefs, and cast-bronze pieces. These are human scale, but the savvy use of materials destabilizes our expectations of what they should weigh and feel like. Some uncanny reversals are thus pulled off. Thorn Shoe, an old-timey, high-heeled lace-up boot cast in bronze, has eyelets that morph into thorns; it draws you in and then pokes you back. However odd it is to convert a fragile, temporary foot covering into a heavy, impenetrable object, the tradition of bronzing a baby shoe, a long-accepted practice for enshrining memories of infancy, is another instance of the human yearning to make permanent what is ephemeral. In art practice, as in life, reproducing a thing in a different material can radically transform its meaning. Youdelman’s transformations are executed with an attention to detail that pushes all the way through to excess, speaking of containment as much as adornment, of investigation as much as preservation.  While new clothes can convey status, sexual preference, character, and lifestyle, few are kept indefinitely unless they represent a ceremony or rite of passage (wedding or christening gowns). Hence the plenitude of old clothes we see in thrift stores and at garage sales. Youdelman’s focus is on the residual allure of these lost/found objects. One piece is titled Adored. The disembodied garments she selects are coated with wax, plaster bandages, gesso, and paint, and are festooned with scraps of letters, old photos, spools of thread, buttons, costume jewelry, needles, zippers, safety pins, buckles, and other accessories so that their pliancy becomes fixity.  The delicacy and decay of personal articles is wrenched into brittleness via repeated layering. The embellishing of “women’s work” here perversely makes armor out of a camisole.  Youdelman studied costume design at Fresno State University and was drawn into the Feminist Art Program founded by Judy Chicago in 1970. She went on to the Cal Arts program that followed a short time after this. Youdelman participated in the 1972 Womanhouse, in which artists created elaborate installations in the various rooms of an old Hollywood mansion slated to be demolished. Womanhouse went on to become the influential and long-lived Los Angeles Woman’s Building project, and inspired similar undertakings in other cities.  Youdelman’s use of puffy-sleeved girls’ party dresses and women’s clingy evening gowns, old photos, love letters, and flower petals could suggest a kind of nostalgia, an attempt to preserve the precious and cling to what is gone; even the extensive use of plaster bandages could seem to be a kind of mummifying ritual. But anyone familiar with the watershed Womanhouse artistic moment will recall that anger, defiance, revolt, and exhilaration were an important part of the mix. (One installation
included a trashcan overflowing with used tampons, a transgressive gesture that later works, such as Warhol’s urine paintings or even Serrano’s Piss Christ, did not begin to match.) The finished works play off dichotomies such as presence and absence, pliancy and rigidity, permanence and decay. The inevitable question becomes, “Is all this stuff decoration or suffocation?”
Post-Madonna and Lady Gaga it is no longer unusual to see lingerie publicly aired. But the repurposed maiden forms of Pin Bra #2 and Pin Bra #6 evoke the breastplates of punkmanga goddesses; they bristle quietly with the dissonant energy of pricked fingers that inevitably goes with extensive pinning. Process is Youdelman’s prime interest, and these pieces were clearly fun to make. Their affect walks a line between exuberance and obsession. It would be interesting to see this artist take up the sartorial social semiotics of falling-down pants that reveal underwear, or the ubiquitous turned-around baseball cap, for example, or to engage with some of the social tensions around the burka, hijab, and other controversial female symbolic headwear.