Near the end of Edith Wharton’s bleakly beautiful 1905 novel “The House of Mirth,” the main character — a financially struggling socialite named Lily Bart — rummages through a trunk of her old clothes. Inside are expensive dresses she wore to various elegant events when she occupied a higher rung on the social ladder. Now they are musty and forlorn.
As Lily looks at the extravagant gowns, Wharton writes, the scenes in which she wore them rise vividly before her. Each one transports her, if only for a moment, somewhere other than the drudgery of the present. These aren’t just clothes; each one is like a sort of personal archaeological artifact. Wharton writes: “An association lurked in every fold: each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in the record of her past.”
Nancy Youdelman, one of the Fresno area’s most important and best known artists, loves that line in “The House of Mirth.” It’s one of her favorites in all literature. The quotation helps explain the way she can take a discarded dress or shoe and with a practiced eye and flash of creativity turn it into a compelling sculptural object.
One of the highlights of her long-awaited and richly deserved new retrospective at the Fresno Art Museum, titled “Fashioning a Feminist Vision,” is seeing how Youdelman’s techniques have evolved over almost 50 years. She encrusts the garments she uses — all of them second-hand, many purchased on eBay or local thrift shops — with a variety of found objects, resulting in meaningful mixed-media creations. Buttons, dried flowers, costume jewelry, broken pieces of glass and anonymous vintage photos figure prominently in her later works. She’s perfected the technique of using encaustic, a natural resin reheated on a pancake griddle, to transform flimsy fabric into works of rigidity and permanence. The pieces feel as if they could hang on museum walls for hundreds of years.
A student of the famed feminist artist Judy Chicago (who began her own career with a memorable three-semester stint at Fresno State in 1970), Youdelman has remained a proud disciple of the feminist art movement, devoting much of her career to works that examine and edify the experiences of women. In an essay in the show’s catalog, Chicago writes, “I am glad to have contributed to an important change in the art world, one that has allowed women like Nancy to demonstrate that one can most certainly be both a woman and artist, too.” And Youdelman has forged her own path, garnering attention in national publications and prestigious exhibitions.
Michele Ellis Pracy, the museum’s executive director and the show’s curator, selected 65 pieces, offering a crisp interpretation of the artist’s career path. “It can be definitively said that Youdelman helped pioneer the Women’s Art Movement that has irrefutably altered the male domination of art and culture in America,” she writes in the catalog.
‘Nancy Youdelman: Fashioning a Feminist Vision, 1972-2017,’ through Aug. 27, Fresno Art Museum
But Youdelman has made these contributions on her own terms, not conforming to anyone else’s preconceived notions of what feminist art should or can be.
“My work is not overtly feminist,” Youdelman tells me. “I’m not trying to cram something down anyone’s throat or make a strong political statement. But it is feminist, and it’s also feminine. It’s about things that are important to me: a lifetime of sewing, a real love of fabrics and buttons, a love of gardens. Feminism is a way of living where everyone is respected. Maybe not everyone would agree. But to me it’s treating everyone with dignity and equality.”
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On the Monday before her Friday opening at the art museum, I stop in at her large and prosperous looking studio in the backyard of her small home near Old Town Clovis. I hope to glimpse the artist behind the scenes, to get a backstage look at what goes into a Youdelman creation. And also to learn a little more about what her body of work means to her overall.
The 900-square foot studio, whose large north-facing windows look out on a pomegranate tree blooming with flame-red flowers, is cheerfully cluttered with projects in various stages of completion. In one corner, on a table near bookshelves overflowing with Mardi Gras beads, brass zippers, lace and spools of sewing thread sorted by color, I see a salad bar of found objects, most of them purchased online. (“I’ve been known to spend thousands of dollars on eBay,” she says.) There are bowls of buttons, retro greeting cards, vintage sewing notions, leaves, straight pins, peculiar bric-a-brac, and even a timeworn bottle of Tea Rose, a stinky smelling perfume that she rescued from the home of a cousin after she died.
With these items before her, she is ready to pick and choose as she builds her own artistic “salads.”
The work can be slow and exacting. For her “Pin Bra” series, she positioned hundreds of straight pins on brassieres. One of them — not in the exhibition — was a larger bra-corset combination that took three seasons binge watching “Dexter” on Netflix to create.
“I was stabbing myself with the pins, trying to keep blood off my work, and Dexter was splattering blood all over,” she says.
I’m fascinated when she tells me of her deep connection to Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth.” Early in her career, Youdelman made a full-scale installation recreating Bart’s deathbed scene after her overdose of chloral hydrate. There is a dark and melancholy undertone to the novel — a sense that any human life, while miraculous, can also crumble into despair — that seems analogous to the feeling that I get with much of Youdelman’s work. People die, she says, and leave their stuff behind. And she resurrects new meaning in it.
Take, for example, one of her favorite pieces in the exhibition, titled “Black Shoe with Roots and Pearls, 2013.” It is a vintage Red Cross shoe popular in the 1930s that Youdelman filled with plaster. She then stuck on dead roots and wrapped the whole thing with thread and jewelry. The result is a vaguely menacing form, something that one of Macbeth’s Witches might have worn, that sends conflicting messages: It’s obviously a shoe, a utilitarian implement, but it also feels organic, as if it were once alive and might come alive again.
“I like the dark quality,” she says. “It’s very much a part of my work.”
In another artist’s hands, the use of old dresses and other acoutrements of feminine fashion, combined with vintage photos, might have come across as sunny and whimsical. Perhaps even vapid.
Some people do have that take on her work. “Sometimes people say it’s nostalgic or sentimental,” she says.
‘I like the dark quality. It’s very much a part of my work.’
— Nancy Youdelman
I tell her that I disagree. Describing her work as sentimental somehow diminishes it. Over the years, as I’ve written about Youdelman’s work, I’ve never thought of it as based on the wisps of nostalgia. It feels solid to me, future-focused. “I think of your art as having heft,” I say.
She tilts her head at me. She has a kind face and an optimistic openness to her persona that cranks up when she talks about art. Chicago writes that she can still remember her as a young student answering the call to be in her class: “beautiful but somewhat dreamy, like a pre-Raphaelite painting; instead of wanting to be a model or a muse, she wanted to be an artist.” Youdelman, at 68, has been dealing with some recent physical limitations, including not one but two broken shoulders. But you can still witness that youthful dreaminess in her eyes, a sense of encouragement and of looking forward, perhaps honed from all those years of teaching.
She likes my word. Heft.
“I want that,” she says.
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Youdelman was born in 1948 in New York City. Her mother was Sophie Amirkhanian, a native of Fresno, and a Jewish father, William Youdelman. The family migrated to the West Coast, at first to Fresno, then to San Francisco. When her father died, her mother came back to Fresno, and the young Nancy was ensconced in a tight-knit extended family. This was home. Though she started at Fresno State, she followed Chicago to CalArts, where she graduated in 1973. She went on to get an MFA degree from UCLA in 1976.
For 20 years she was in the Los Angeles area in the thick of the feminist art movement, participating in Chicago’s well-known “Womanhouse” project. This was a time of exploration for Youdelman as she dabbled in performance art and installation art (one of her earliest pieces, “Self Portrait as Ophelia,” is recreated in the retrospective) and co-founded Grandview Gallery, a woman’s cooperative in the Woman’s Building. She also co-founded Double X, a non-profit feminist collective.
Her two children, Andy and Sophie, were born in the Los Angeles area. She has two grandsons.
Affordable living was a draw for Youdelman and her husband (she’s now divorced) when she came back to Fresno in 1992.
She never stopped making art, even when working a minimum-wage job to support it. She eventually started teaching at Fresno City College, then at Clovis Community College. In 1999 she joined the Fresno State art department, eventually becoming a full-time lecturer.
To circle back to her childhood home was important, reinforcing the idea that clothes always came naturally to her. She remembers first using a sewing machine when she was 6 years old.
“I made all my own clothes all through high school,” she says. “It used to be that you saved money doing that.”
One of the foundations of Youdelman’s art is, simply, a love of clothes and the way they are made. Sewing machines aren’t a big part of American life anymore. Later generations are disconnected from the way our garments are constructed. Today we are content to buy almost ridiculously cheap clothes manufactured mostly in foreign sweatshops.
It’s common to complain these days that children are so removed from where produce in the grocery store comes from that they don’t know that various fruits, for example, grow on trees. You could say the same for where clothes come from.
Youdelman shows me a piece of fabric cut out from a pattern sitting on a table. Its shape has a vague similarity to an upright coffin. I haven’t a clue what it is.
“It’s a sleeve opened out,” she says, picking it up. “If you took the sleeve off your shirt, it would have a similar shape. This is the part that gets sewn into the armpit.”
I have a similar sense of disassociation when laying eyes on many of Youdelman’s works. Dresses make up the largest number of garment types in the exhibition. When I focus on one, I know that’s a dress hanging on the wall, but the fabric has been so radically transformed it’s easy to lose track. The effects she achieves can be radically different depending on the materials she uses. One dress suggests a suit of armor. Another could be a flamboyant Elizabethan tunic with padded shoulders and encrusted jewels. “Speaking in Colors,” one of the latest works in the show, features a green background studded with big and beautiful broaches, pendants, pearls and other costume jewelry razzle-dazzle.
Youdelman’s work with vintage photos, however, are the ones most likely to make me forget I am gazing at a “mere” dress or shoe. She started using these types of photos in the 1980s, and with the advent of eBay in the years to come, it made it even easier for her to acquire large numbers of photos with specific themes. In the 2000s she extended her collecting to old letters, their senders and recipients long gone.
Which leads me to one of my favorite works in the retrospective, 2007’s “Ellen’s Regret.” It’s one of a series of six works built around love letters received by a Virginia Beach man named Alan Watkins. Youdelman found letters to Watkins from 39 women from up and down the East Coast, and through them she could track his numerous love affairs before he got married. (“I think he was really charming and very wealthy,” Youdelman says.) The pattern of correspondence remains the same: They start out in a flirtatious manner, move on to “Why haven’t I heard from you” concern, and then conclude with angry recriminations.
For “Ellen’s Regret,” she used a vintage white lace and satin wedding dress, one with a va-va-voom style that Mae West might have worn. On the torso, various letters from Ellen chart their doomed romance. On the attached skirt and shoulders, unrelated vintage photos and dried gardenias accent the wistful if slightly sour tone of the piece.
Not all of Youdelman’s works that use vintage photos or other materials such as letters have such a strong narrative. But even if the photos don’t tell a specific story, they are powerful because of two things: their anonymity and the random nature in which the artist stumbled upon them.
“When you look at the photos there is so much going on in them,” she says. “There are stories I’ll never know.”
She’s sifted through keepsakes that would have been lost and she’s immortalized them. The people in the photos will never know, and their families will never know, either. But we know. Until we, too, are gone.
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It’s Wednesday afternoon now, two days before the exhibition opens, and Youdelman is at the museum walking through the show for the first time. Ellis Pracy joins us, sharing some of the finer points of the exhibition’s curation.
What is it like to see her career in one big swoop?
“It takes my breath away,” Youdelman says. “Particularly to see these much bigger works that have been in storage for so long. I’ve seen them in my studio, but there’s something different about them all being here together.”
Like any curator, Ellis Pracy had a definite viewpoint in terms of putting the exhibition together, and I like how most of the early pieces — they’re arranged chronologically by decade — seem to pave the way for the later ones, both in subject matter and technique.
There’s another side to Youdelman’s early years that you might miss, however, if this exhibition is your only exposure to her. In “A Studio of Their Own: The Legacy of the Fresno Feminist Experiment,” you get a glimpse of Youdelman more as a young art rebel, whether enacting the character of “Las Vegas Whore” (she designed the costume, of course) or embarking on a 14-day test period in “I Tried Everything” to enhance her bust size (complete with topless photos) using duplicitous mail-order products.
I mention this wilder streak not so much to contrast with the significant and enduring feel of Youdelman’s later work but simply to acknowledge the fecund creative energy that was its foundation.
As we walk through the exhibition, I think again of “The House of Mirth” and how Lily Bart’s stale dresses brought back vivid recollections. Most of the memories captured in Youdelman’s works are anonymous, of course, there by sheer chance. But look closely, and you’ll find the artist, too.
She approaches a piece titled “Family Secrets.” Again, it’s a dress featuring buttons, swatches of fabric and lots of old photos. But this one is personal. It’s about her discovery of her mother’s first marriage to a man that Youdelman and her sister didn’t even know about until they were adults. His name was Tony, and he died of a brain tumor at 22. Her mother married her father just a year later and never spoke of it.
“This is about my mother and her youth … and Tony,” Youdelman says softly.
There’s something else. Look for a swath of blue in the piece. That bit of the collage comes from the insides of envelopes bearing PG&E 48-hour shutoff notices.
“I used to spend money on art rather than pay my bills,” she says. “After I did this piece, I started paying all my bills on time. So that’s another family secret, too.”
It can be odd for a living artist to have a retrospective because it can seem so elegaic. “Sometimes the word retrospective makes me think the artist is dead,” she says with a laugh.
The past year has been hard on Youdelman physically, and she’s had a lot of help preparing for the exhibition. (Julia Woli Scott, who assisted her on the show, also directed a 19-minute film about her.) The broken shoulders, which were separate injuries, have slowed her down. It’s hard for her to walk her rambunctious Catahoula Leopard Dog puppy, Daisy.
But she’s getting her range of motion back in both arms.
And the urge to create is stronger than ever.
“I consider myself in the prime of my life in many ways — maybe not physically. Getting a puppy when I’m almost 70 is scary. What was I thinking? But I love what I do. For this time in my life, even with my injuries, I really think things are the way I want them to be.”
Julia Woli Scott directed this 19-minute film about Nancy Youdelman and her art:
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