Museums

Remembering the West Coast Mail Art Scene

by An Xiao on February 26, 2014

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The Mail / Art / Book main exhibition space in the San Francisco Center for the Book. (photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

SAN FRANCISCO — While we tumble, tweet, and post our remixes of media online in a daily creative dialogue, it helps to remember that the history of creative correspondence extends to well before the internet. Hosted at the San Francisco Center for the Book, Mail/Art/Book explores the relationship between printed books and mail art. According to curator Jennie Hinchcliff’s write-up of the show, the North American West Coast has long played an instrumental role in building communities around mail art, with the publication of magazines and tight networks of mail artists.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Hinchcliff pointed to communities that formed over directories and zines, like the Image Exchange Directory, published by Vancouver’s Talonbooks in 1972. “Correspondence artists would place a listing of imagery they were looking for (i.e. ‘images of Niagara Falls’ or ‘postcards from hotels and motels in Vermont’) along with their name and mailing address,” she explained. “Other artists reading the directory would send the requested items along. In this way, personal connections were slowly but surely built up, address by single address.”

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An ode from artist Phyllis Lucas-Haddow to her postal carrier. (click to enlarge)

Artists often responded to each other’s work — “each piece of mail sent between two correspondents is a call and response” — and they used the mail system itself as part of the art work and process. “Ray Johnson was a big fan of the ‘add ‘n’ pass’ — a mail art exquisite corpse, in a way,” she noted. It worked like this: a sheet of paper started by one artist and then mailed on to other artists, who would ‘add’ to the sheet and ‘pass’ it along to other people in their address book. Eventually the work finds its way back to the original mailer. Many mail artists today use this tactic to collaborate with artists around the world, as well as gain new addresses of people to correspond with.”

The Center for the Book is a perfect venue: right next to the exhibition are letterpresses that click, clank, and bonk with activity while the viewer shuffles through the space to view the works. The sounds and buzz of the printmakers adds to the textural quality of the works on display, most of which viewers are encouraged to touch and open. It’s a delightful look at the creative energy behind the pieces, which come from different parts of the world and the United States and were sent in to Hinchcliff’s mailing address.

“It was important to me that there be a ‘please touch’ aspect of the show,” she noted, while pointing out that many pieces had to be placed behind display cases for logistical reasons, “since so much of the pleasure of correspondence art lies in the fact that you can open something, hold it in your hand, experience the excitement of receiving something in the mail.”

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Mail art from Patricia Tannever’s collection.

Also on display is the collection of Patricia Tavenner, described as one of the most engaged participants in the West Coast mail art scene.  Called the “Mail Queen,” she published Mail Order Art, a distribution magazine, and was a member of the Bay Area Dada Group — a reflection of the Fluxus influence on mail art in the 70’s. Her collection, curated by John Held, Jr., includes an early range of “artistamps” — stamps custom produced by artists.

Curiously, much of the art that was sent in also includes artists’ web sites. That mail art traditions and practices continue today, even alongside the rapid changes to creativity that the internet has brought, is a testament to its power as an art form. Wrote Hinchcliff:

Slowing down is an incredible luxury: we spend an exponential amount of time trying to do things faster, more efficiently. But sometimes, there is no substitute for slow — contemporary postal modernism falls into this category. The act of creating a handcrafted letter or postcard reflects who we are while reaching out to others.

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An instruction set from artist Reid Wood.

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Postage stamps arranged by artist Marina Salmaso

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A “visual haiku” from artist Frank Donato

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Keith Buchholz’s Life on the Mississippi alongside a basket of mail art.

Mail/Art/Book continues at the San Francisco Center for the Book (375 Rhode Island Street, San Francisco) through April 27.

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  • Aleodor Costescu

    the things that pass for art these days…

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