Jane Austen once wrote, "Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim." Although truer words may never have been written, the clothes we wear have always- whether consciously or unconsciously -been expressions of who we are and where we come from. Sculptor Nancy Youdelman understands Austen's statement only too well, and her mixed-media assemblages of girl's and women's antique dresses and shoes on view at Eight Modern tackle themes ranging from notions of identity and womanhood, to the traditions of craft media, to the displacement of the self.
Threads of Memory refers directly to the physical and mental processes involved in the making of garments and memories. Youdelman's dresses, which vary in size and form, are based on found dresses that she has scavenged from vintage stores or tag sales. Drawn to the now anonymous nature of these formerly personal, even fetishized, garments, Youdelman is enamored with the process of transformation and of injecting new meanings into cast-off attire. Her mode of recontextualization involves making dresses that are heavily encrusted with organic and inorganic materials including twigs, beeswax, antique photographs, beads, text, and coins. Youdelman's resulting transformations blur the boundaries between refined beauty and grotesque excess that elicit feelings ranging from empathy to anxiety in viewers.
Stripped of any signs of personal identity, and of the materials from which they were originally made, these disembodied, stylized dresses are signifiers of particular eras. Evocations of past and present mingle in various galleries where 1950s-style party dresses with puffy sleeves like Betty Potter (2007) contrast with the seemingly matronly, Victorian-inspired Fractured (2006). Little girls' dresses are also interspersed throughout the show, and the combinations of dresses speak obliquely to notions of social conformity, female rites of passage, and to the aging process. Personal and fictionalized narratives are embedded in all of these works. Youdelman weaves elements of her own biography as well as stories culled from the Internet and elsewhere into her sculptures, which, despite their divergent forms, read as highly manipulated, figurative vessels filled with emotional memories.
Youdelman's approach to art-making is deeply informed by the visual and conceptual language of Feminist Art, or Woman-centered Art, initiated by Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and others in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some of Youdelman's strongest work, however, moves beyond her West Coast feminist coterie, and speaks to important predecessors such as Hannah Höch and Meret Oppenheim-two influential women artists involved with the Dadaist and Surrealist art movements, respectively. In works such as Album (2008) and Ellen's Regret (2007), one finds echoes of Höch's collage technique (she pioneered photomontage) and Oppenheim's uncanny use of materials-art-making strategies that challenged the hypocrisy of media representation, gender inequality, and sexual exploitation.
The most disquieting works in the show channel the visceral, emotional intensity of Höch and Oppenheim. Youdelman's cast bronzes-Bound (2008), a high-heeled shoe literally bound in chains of beads, and Vessel (2005), a child's dress laden with heavy metal ornamentation-eschew sentimentality and nostalgia for the brutal truth that reality presents: the commodification of women's identities begins at youth.