I saw the ads in magazines like Art Papers for years: “Mail Art Show, all works shown; no juries or fees; documentation to all participants.” I never knew exactly what mail art was, though I imagined something like handmade postcards or designs made on Strathmore blank greeting cards. It didn’t sound like “art” as I was taught it. The prevalent attitude wasand still isthat you made your reputation as an artist by getting into juried shows. Somebody elsepreferably an artist whose own reputation had already been established, or a museum curatorhad to say your work was worth exhibiting, and, by extension, worth existing. Showing in a reputable gallery was the only truly acceptable end. “All works shown”? How could that be good? More importantly, how could that be good art?
But this exhibition-oriented approach ignores the truth of the situationthat it’s the process, not the end result, that matters. The ideas exchanged between makers and viewers are as important as, if not more important than, the finished object. Of course, for years, performance artists, video artists, and others working in alternative or marginal media have dedicated themselves to the process and to circumventing traditional art venues. Mail artists, however, are less well known, because for them, as Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery’s “Faux Post” exhibit relates, “the mailbox is the medium.”
Talk about circumventionno gallery is needed if the art arrives by post. The initiation of a postal network between senders and receivers is integral to the definition of mail art. It is an art of exchange; even the idea of correspondence has been totally reworked by these practitioners. According to Robert C. Morgan in his book Commentaries on the New Media Arts, the exchange of letters is traditionally a “literary action directed toward the intimacy of the receiver.” Mail art, on the other hand, is “a democratic idea, that anyone can give and receive art.” In fact, the message is a visual one and may actually arrive as a stamp, albeit a stamp unlike any the Post Office has ever issued.
This is what Vanderbilt’s exhibit emphasizes. Any medium is fair game for these “artistamps”stickers, hand-carved rubber stamps (some made from erasers), collage, photocopy, computer laser printing, offset printing, even duct tape. In addition, the stamps are displayed in sheets, complete with perforations and, one assumes, adhesive on the back. The subject matter is just as varied as the media. Politics is amply covered, as is popular culture. One standout in the Vanderbilt show is an alternative to the Fat or Thin Elvis stamp series; here, The King is presented as drug addict, alcoholic, television executioner, and corpse.
Identity is also a recurring theme throughout the exhibit. E.F. Higgins III’s stamps consist of color photocopy images of himself under the banner “Portrait of the Artist as....” In each subsequent stamp, the image of the artist doesn’t change much, while the banner proclaims a different personBrooke Shields, Bucky Fuller, Hank Williams, Bugs Bunny, ultimately even Higgins himself. Indeed, identity is frequently just a state of mind in mail art: Artists showing works in this exhibit include A-1 Waste Paper, Ltd., Anna Banana, Buz Blurr, Crackerjack Kid, and the Rockola Twins. Ed Varney of Canada is also known as Canadada or the Big Dada, while Joki Mail Art is the nom de poste of German artist Jo Klaffki.
Play is paramount in artistamps, as it is with any good art, but creating aliases also serves to lessen the importance of who actually created the work; it also reinforces the idea that producing art changes who you are in relation to the world around you. As John Held Jr., a mail artist whose collection comprises most of the current exhibit, explains, the long-held strategy of the avant-garde is to break down distinctions between artists and non-artists, art and life.
Mail art accomplishes this; it questions the value of art. Who owns the work, the sender or receiver? Can it be sold? And by raising these issues, mail art redefines the whole concept of value: It lies in the experience rather than in the object; as a result, the object has a “moral value” rather than an aesthetic or monetary one. Held says that mail art’s greatest contribution is not the creation of specific works but the creation of an open and democratic structure for learning about the creative process. It is an art that questions all the traditional trappings of Western art culture, and seeing the contributions of Eastern European artists, who only recently have had the freedom to participate, is truly exciting.
Ironically, an exhibit like this also raises an entirely different set of questions: If this is a subversive art form meant to question the validity and reality of art, if it’s meant to be experienced through the postal medium, then what is it doing in the mainstream setting of a gallery? Mail-art shows like the ones advertised in Art Papers serve as a place for mail artists linked only through the mails to meet each other as a group. The whole point is to reinforce connections, while showing work is a way to discuss why the artists make art and who is served by it. (Some artistamps, such as Buz Blurr’s “Caustic Jelly Post Ambush,” even use these meetings as thematic material.)
But this show is not “all work shown.” “Faux Post” has been curated by Held, who believes that mail art can compete in some ways (though not financially) with other genres currently in the gallery system. This, however, means that the exhibit is controlled: Pieces were selected according to Held’s criteria, which, considering the pieces on display, likely had something to do with the aesthetic appeal and professionalism of the work. Also, the pieces in Vandy’s gallery are framed with the style and panache of traditional works on paper.
So is this a mail art show? No, but it does entertain and educate the viewer, and it offers the invitation to join the discussion. It also shows how this kind of revolutionary activity can be assimilated and even institutionalized by the mainstream art establishmentin this case with the aid of one of the genre’s foremost practitioners. But if “the mailbox is the medium,” then we as viewers of this particular show have missed the primary point of mail art. If the stamps themselves are not the most important aspect, then our only recourse is to make some stamps and mail them off. Only then can we truly understand what mail art is all about.
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Thanks so much for the fun read! Have a great summer.
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