LOS ANGELES — During the pandemic, Lisa Bowman found solace in her mailbox. Shortly before COVID-19 lockdowns began in early 2020, the Los Angeles-based artist and curator had begun an exquisite corpse mail art project. Made famous by the Surrealists a century ago, the exquisite corpse is a collaborative exercise between three people, each of whom contributes without seeing what the others have done. Inspired by a massive exquisite corpse exhibition held at the Drawing Center in New York in 1993, Bowman began sending out sheets of paper folded into three sections, with instructions and a self-addressed stamped envelope, to friends and colleagues. Then the pandemic hit.
“It was the perfect thing to do during the lockdown,” she told Hyperallergic in a studio visit last year. “It certainly saved me in a way, because I couldn’t go see art, and then I’d get these envelopes in the mail.”
Over the next year and a half, Bowman diligently mailed out and received packages. Her exquisite corpse project grew to 70 drawings featuring contributions from over 200 artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians, and curators, which she released as a book last year. The list of participants reflects Bowman’s creative circles in New York and LA, as well as their families and students, and artists she found through Instagram.
Bowman attended art school in San Francisco before moving to LA, where she worked for James Corcoran and began curating shows at punk haunt/gallery the Zero Club in the late 1980s. In the early ’90s, she relocated to New York, where she fell in with the Lower East Side art and culture scene. The exquisite corpse pulls from both nodes. The second piece in the series features two female visages reminiscent of pulp art by Walter Robinson above Brigitte Engler’s Rorschach-like red and black body, and cartoonish, Simpsons-esque feet by punk pioneer Richard Hell. The first work created (though the last in the book) is topped by LA-based artist and poet Eve Wood’s redhead with a surreal, elongated nose, while the middle section is anchored by Claudia Parducci’s drawing of knotted rope. A red ink drawing of two feet straddling a large phallus is by Light & Space artist Peter Alexander, Parducci’s late husband, who encouraged Bowman to take on the project when she proposed it to him.
A quick glance at a few of the contributors highlights Bowman’s idiosyncratic and heterogeneous approach: South Bronx sculptor John Ahearn, along with his wife and son; artist Kenny Scharf; LA author and artist John Tottenham; Pat Place of post-punk band the Bush Tetras; artist Robin Winters, who recruited his students at SVA; ceramicist Jennie Jieun Lee; and Tom Recchion of the LA Free Music Society. Actress and director Jodie Foster contributed a tangle of audio tape, which sits above drawings by Michael Ballou and Daniel Healey. She told Bowman that it was a recording of her wife’s secrets.
For Bowman, there is no financial motivation behind the project. “This will never be sold, okay; that’s not the game,” she stresses. Rather, it is about generosity, connection, and discovery at a time when those seemed in short supply. Part of the fun of flipping through the book is trying to guess who is responsible for each drawing. It could be a world-renowned artist, an acclaimed director, or a 12-year-old kid. A page might feature lifelong friends, a parent and children, or acquaintances from across the country — networks delineated and distance transcended through these fanciful tripartite grotesqueries.