From [X]press Magazine: The art of snail mail
December 19, 2007 8:21 PM
While vacationing in Europe during 1975, John Held Jr. stepped into a rubber stamp store with the intention of buying some presents to take home to his kids. But when he saw the visual images reprinted in the stamps—pictures of animals, storybook illustrations, and other objects—he was struck by their potential to be used in art. Held could not think of where he had ever seen stamps represented in artwork before, so when he went home to New York where he worked as a librarian and did some research to see what was out there. He discovered there was an entire network of artists who used rubber stamps to share their ideas and communicate back and forth through the mail.
Held has been involved in making, sending, and archiving mail art ever since he became involved in the network and has written books and zines on the topic.
Mail art can be virtually anything that is sent through the mail, as well as the internet, that expresses any number of ideas and images, depending on the interest of the artist and their correspondents.
“When you give a definition of mail art, you usually reveal more about yourself than about mail art. The subject is so broad that when you comment on it, you reveal what you think about mail art, not really what mail art is,” says Held.
Held’s interest in rubber stamps, artist’s handmade postage stamps, and zines is the focus of the mail art that he makes and sends to his correspondents.
“What I find interesting about [Held] is that he is not overly impressed with what art is,” says Paul Karlstrom, an art historian and long time friend of Held’s. “He is immersed in popular culture, but at the same time he’s very serious about what he does and what he admires. So he can draw from all sources, which is one of the great definitions, I suppose, of one strain of modernism. And Held is part of that. I think that mail art is something that isn’t really marketable. [Held] operates just with his own creative interest, and it’s about communication, it’s about sharing imagery and then building on it and moving it around and sending it around the world.”
While Held often prints his rubber stamps onto envelopes and letters, mail art is not limited to paper. Mail art can be objects, collages, boxes—anything the artist making the piece wants to give to their correspondent. Held has collected and archived numerous objects that have been sent to him, from gloves to figurines and even a dried blowfish.
The network of artists in which Held was first involved was a group called The New York Correspondence School of Art created by Ray Johnson, who Held considers one of the fathers of mail art. Held was given contact information for the group through someone who worked for a rubber stamp company he read about in The New York Times.
“When I got into mail art it was kind of an offshoot of conceptual art, and it was exploring this kind of breakdown between strict boundaries of art and strict boundaries of life,” says Held. “It kind of blended the letter writing activity into an art form about what your life was like.”
Despite the advent of email, Held believes that the internet has expanded mail art rather than decreased it. Before the internet, Held says mail art was hard to get into because the only way to become involved in mail art was if you saw a mail art show or knew someone who had access to a catalog with names and addresses of artists to correspond with. Now that so many websites exist about mail art, a simple Google search can give anyone the addresses for the correspondents they need. People have now started exchanging mail art through email, and even have mail art “shows” on the internet, where artists scan their work and then post it on a site.
“Mail art was never just about the postal system—it was about exploring the possibilities of artistic communication or the way art is communicated,” says Held. “And that’s why mail art can make the leap from the postal system to the internet.”
Held says that mail art separates itself from other art forms in its basis in collaboration. In order for the art to be possible, mail art depends on a relationship between a sender and a receiver. Painting or sculpting in a studio is a solitary activity, where the main participant is the observer, who may comment on the work but have no direct influence over its production.
The collaborative aspect of making mail art appeals to Held because of the parallels he sees between mail art and Utopian societies.
“The Utopian community is an ideal: not the way things are, but the way they could be,” says Held. “Mail art is a good way to form communities across international borders, so hopefully in its own small way, [it] paves the way towards a more unified world, a more understanding world.”
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