Mail Art: Post Dada

By David Portz

Echo: An International Mail Art Show, Diverse Works, Houston, March 19 – April 3, 1985.

Mail Artists do not care who did it first,
Mail Artists do not care who did it best,
Mail Artists do it for each other now,
Mail Artists do not accept awards for doing it,
Mail Artists build the world network of confidence.”
-Iala, Berkeley, California

I’m your lobster!” “You’re not a God-damned lobster!” – Prince Bullion Cube
One of the ways to make yourself famous is to kill Cavellini or have Cavellini kill you. Cavellini has a chain of convenience stores in Italy and may or may not have had a show of mail art at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. A postcard said he did. Another way to make yourself famous is to organize a Center of the Study of Cavellini. Cavellini is a mail artist whose attempts to self-historicize are succeeding. Cavellini stickers are all over the subway platforms in New York’s SOHO district.
This show of mail art was organized by Tom Packlick, also known as Tom Pack. The gallery walls were covered with pieces sent from all over the world by over 550 mail artists, responding to the theme of Echo. Or not responding. Most mail art shows have a theme or parameter — for example, send only aerograms, send only maps no larger than ten by eighteen inches, send only envelopes, send only tickets. Mail artists often ignore these themes and send what they like.
Mail arts shows adhere to three basic rules. 1) All work submitted will be shown, 2) no entry free is charged, and 3) no work will be returned to the artist. An informal fourth parameter is that acknowledgment will be given the artist — a list of participating artists, or perhaps, if there’s money enough, a show catalog. These rules developed because mail art was a reaction to the artist’s frustrations over submitting work to juried shows at considerable expense, and then having their work rejected. Although anything goes, very little is particularly obscene.
Mail art is heavy into hand-made; heavy into color and black-and-white photographics, photoduplication, color Xerox, collage, computer graphics, sketches, small paintings, handmade papers and books, and personally composed poems and prose. A large proportion of the mail artists use rubber stamps for a return address or part of the imagery, and Tom Pack says that many mail artists were rubber stampers first.
Mail artists sometimes go by funny names: Beef Tabloid, from Omaha, Nebraska; We Never Sleep, from Olympia, Washington; Fatal Neo, from St. Petersburg, Florida; Plastcannedishes, from O’Connor, Australia; F. Stop Fitzgerald and No More Tears, both from San Francisco. It’s hard to tell whether Ivo Antic is a real name, but his mail comes from Yugoslavia. The Latigailis Triplets correspond with, and from, Seattle. Leavenworth Jackson derived her name from the streets of the San Francisco intersection where she lives. This is perhaps the ultimate statement that a mail artist can make.
Mail artists send much that isn’t paper. The Echo show received a soda can from Shawnee, Kansas, a two-foot diameter film reel from North Carolina ($2.90 postage), and a pair of Extra Large Oscar Meyer Weinie boxer shorts, the legs stamped with red running pigs. A fake mustache and beard, surprisingly similar to Anton Chekhov’s, came glued to a picture of midget wrestlers, collaged with the quote, “Our team captain addressed us through a thick veil of wool.”
“If mail art owes its existence to anything, it’s Dada,” says Tom Pack, “taking ordinary objects and saying they’re art. [The work submitted is] not self conscious, not all that interested with the final product, not expecting to be taken seriously. “Tom Pack expects never to see his work again after he mails it. For about a year, he’s sandwiched tickets, stamps, and dots from three-hole punches between translucent sheets of tracing paper — a unique style. Sometimes he doesn’t recognize his pieces in catalogs of other shows because they reproduce so poorly. But he carefully keeps everything that’s sent to him, and he gets something every day.
Among the participants are famous artists, for example, Christo, Carl Andre, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Rauchenburg, although the latter two are not so active any more. Ray Johnson started the New York School of Correspondence Art, and has had a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Michael Voo Doo from Washington, D.C., made a bid for stardom in the Echo show. He was prolific enough to fill a whole wall with themes such as “The Fat Jesus,” “Being a Policewoman,” and “The Dark Side of Prison Life,” though the works in the aggregate weren’t very clever. Artist’s names on the different cuts of beef is a common mail motif. On the other hand Chris Cook submitted an ink-sketched abstraction drawn on a cotton swab.
American mail artists are most numerous, followed by those from Italy and France. Mail artists operate in Western Europe out Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, East Germany, and Greece, though some of them doubt that they’re receiving of all of their return mail. Nothing comes out of the U.S.S.R. or mainland China. Five or six regulars hail from Australia, several from Japan, one from Thailand, and from South and Central America, a bunch. The Central and South Americans seem to be the most politically minded, the Europeans second and North Americans last. U.S. mail artists are more absorbed with visual puns, and Californians are the most influenced by punk and camp fashions.
A book called Correspondence Art, published in 1984, is available in Houston through the store Iconography, which also sells rubber stamps. The shows are advertised in Art Week, Rubber Stamp Madness, and TAM (Traveling Mail Art), which is published in Holland. A catalog of shows will often serve as a mailing list, so that each show updates the network. Diverse Works had another mail art show called Maps in December 1983, also curated by Tom Pack, and mail art was in last year’s Fluxus show at the Contemporary Arts Museum. A show of postage stamp creations by the late Donald Evans toured the U.S., sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. Large mail art shows have taken place in many major cities of the U.S. and Europe. Tom Pack says mail art is growing, but he doesn’t think it’s going to sweep the nation. “I don’t see it as a moving force in the art world, but I might be wrong.”