Art Review Archives:
The Stamp Art and Postal History
Chicago Printmakers Collaborative
We see them each and every day. Can they be art? You could sit in prison quite a while for using one. Can that be art? They're small and often elegant; they sneak up on the unsuspecting; they anger and deflate; satisfy and satirize. It might just well be art.
Until March 24, 2001, the gallery visitor has an opportunity to judge. "The Stamp Art and Postal History of Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna" is on display at the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative.
Kill All Artists [Cynic] by Michael Thompson must catch the attention of the art crowd. It probably reflects the sentiments of a few in official circles, too. Thompson is an artist who creates artists stamps: stamps with no respect, no sacred cows, and with no sense of censorship -- of self or any other deity. And every visitor to the gallery found some item from among his work that just begged to be forwarded. The artists offer full printed sheets, as well as mounted single stamps. A personal favorite has got to be "I Want to be an Artist / And Starve to Death." This is a very convincing commemorative stamp, distinguished by a skeleton at its drawing board. The caption forms a border around the artist's graphic rendering.
Both artists in this show have had their skirmishes with authority: bogus stamps may not be used as governmental post; nor can matter deemed indecent be placed on a mailing envelope; nor can letters pass with unpaid postage. In this exhibition at the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative there are examples of all of these. As the printmakers themselves observe, that such stamps have indeed passed, often across international borders, is a testimony to their skill as art. The artists' sleight of hand has often masked the outrageous and absurd, as well as dangerous critiques. The gallery walls are filled with framed sets as document; sets displaying each full, printed sheet... minus a corner of stamps which reappear upon an envelope, successfully mailed, and with cancellation. Thompson's work is represented by 17 framed ensembles. Michael Hernandez de Luna has six such mounted ensembles, in frame and under glass; secure, and now exempt by the statues of limitations: collector's items. Many did get lost, or confiscated, or perhaps reside in the private collections of civil functionaries all about the world. The project continued on. What was all the fuss about?
Michael Thompson's Eat Whale (Japan), a sheet of 5 x 5 stamps -- 25 in total (counting the excised, mailed, and cancelled corner singlet) must provoke a fuss. At the opening, one young viewer was incensed: she saw an advocacy in this; or at least she held a cause so dear that every measured word must be explicit and unequivocal. Another gallery visitor thought it impolite, impolitic, while whales are slaughtered in open sea, to criticize a local taste. Thompson's art is intelligent. And it has no politic restraints. All here depends upon whose ox is being gored.
This artist also sets out Marquis de Sade (France), a sheet in 4 x 5: twenty stamps to each full sheet. Again, in the mounted frame a selection is cut out, mailed and returned for mounting. Marquis de Sade pictures the infamous Marquis in profile, the nude form of a woman concealed in his coiffure. Michael Thompson's "Fight Union Corruption Day" commemoratives are also in this show: each stamp bannered with the caption: "Fight Union Corruption." This is a 3 x 5 stamp sheet: the upper row of five stamps carries the subcaption: "Growing Fat on the Backs of the Worker"; the second row down declares: "Struggle Against Fraud"; and for the bottom row, the subcaption reads: "Prosecute Criminal Union Representatives." Thompson adds to this exhibit his Sacred Cow (India) in which culinary cuts of meat deride a religious tenet born of centuries. But, with equal bite, this artist offers his commemorative: Anniversary of the Spanish Inquisition (Spain). (How did the postal clerks of Espana not notice that!) The works go on... recall a controversial sect from an Asian Peoples' State, and then regard Michael Thompson's jab at human rights -- Falun Gong (China), with its inscription "He is your leader. Follow Him." Michael Thompson does purchase collector's stamps, 'First Day,' and antiquarian envelopes. This artist bought one such item, with a Star of David, and added his own creations. All of which prompted Thompson's "Infamous Jewish Americans series" -- Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky. These are items from among that artist's stamp art in this showing, and they were mailed from Israel to Germany. Here is a performance-project artist who hits at the Liberal, the Left, and the Conservative, and even the Right, with poise, audacity, and from above them all. The artist knows... Thompson has been at his printed stamps for nearly ten years now.
Prozac.The stamp. Now in this exhibition. So many at this exhibition's opening thought of possible recipients. The Prozac stamp is the work of co-conspirator, Michael Hernandez de Luna. This artist joined in Michael Thompson's free associations about six years ago. And never have there been two inspirations so more alike, and yet in different, complementary ways. Michael Hernandez de Luna's J.F.K. Cuban (1997) is wry, aware of the history behind and beyond all textbook photographs and platitudes; this is honest, and it's on the mark. This sheet, mounted together with a corner stamp which was sent through Cuban mails and postmarked, is mounted under glass in mat and frame -- a formal tribute to a mischief which may yet triumph over politics. (How can a president delight in contraband, and pose as failed savior to the oppressed? And was the 'Bay of Pigs' performed just for a good cigar?) Artists such as de Luna and Thompson shake things up, and let the chips just crinkle as they will. What can any intelligent viewer make of de Luna's Doggie Style: here, where horses couple brazenly and free in a misnamed act of sheer instinctiveness? This stamp is marked explicitly as U.S.A.. In this exhibition one is treated to Michael Thompson's Nudity Day stamp memorial. And there is as well this artist's El B.J. (Mexican stamp). (How did some official never see it coming? How did they let it through?)
This showing offers separately mounted singlets (these range about $15 to $20 each, on mount); there are framed ensembles (unique and, by now, unrepeatable -- beginning with $1,000), and, as well, full completed sheets. A favorite still must be Michael Hernandez de Luna's Personal Property of Monica Lewinsky, a stamp which features the much sought-after, and debated (by the frenzied mass of media) simple, woven dress. Still, there are some items in this show, like Yellow Printing, which salute the printer's traditional craft. Standard four-color printing employs four press runs -- each adding a color to a culminative end; yellow is but one of these. It is an artist without pretense, who pays tribute to his medium, the means by which he communicates.
In all, a discreet 'De Lunacy' asserts that a simple smile may prove to have more power than a sword. Each artist in this showing turns on the conventional to subvert complacency. George Orwell questioned, after examining the particulars and finally upon meeting him, the strategies of Mahatma Gandhi (and his English counterpawns) -- who, in fact, subverts; and just who is it co-opts whom? That self-same spirit runs throughout these stamps.
How do they pass, these 'stamps'? Conservators, of art as well as precious books, are often asked to evaluate, to vet, the physical object, in and of itself. During training as a conservator, I had forensic courses -- regarding forgeries, fakes, and the like -- and a general principle is that successful forgers need not attend to every minutiae, if they but capture a comprehensive 'feel.' Few among the deceived ever dissect each line and particle of anything. One accepts the plausible; and examines by the cursory; and only when a thing is questioned, does chicanery stand out. (One notorious Thomas Wise faked books which might have been, but never were; and only when his searches became 'too lucky to believe,' were his 'discoveries' questioned.) Michael Thompson noted that using more than one stamp lends credibility. And that ploy often sends the art to hand cancelling, which relies on hurried, unsuspecting processing. Such art survives on stealth.
In the end, a visitor might perceive a thread of cynical regard for the world these artists see. That is not so. Both artists react in sympathy with the victim, and yet realize that victims, in another game, are just as wont to turn into inquisitors. Both artists realize that in the face of deadly earnest, men can turn to trivial creature comforts: in the face of death, we still want a Cadillac. If, as one poet said, 'they mock, then they mock with half a heart,' the art stamps in this show are, nonetheless -- fun: items of a popular art which everyone could want, and want because they gratify. There is, however, also a lot of thought, commitment, dispassionate and 'philosophical' analysis: a Voltaire spirit in a commonly unregarded medium of print; and if this seems an anarchy of the rebelling mind, then it is with heart as well.
Both artists orchestrate a skilled, well-crafted anarchy. The stamp art of Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna may be viewed at http://hotwired.lycos.com/gallery/96/33/jpeg.b.html. Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna published a book of 152 pages of their stamps, those passing through the mails. They also have a new book: The Stamp Art And Postal History of Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez De Luna (Bad Press Books, Chicago: 2000), priced at $45.00, and available in softcover. (A hardcover issue is restricted to 200 copies.) That website is http://www.badpressbooks.com/stamp_info.html.
Until March 24, 2001, the gallery visitor may be the judge. There are some clever and impressive prints. "The Stamp Art and Postal History of Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna" is on display at the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative, 4642 North Western Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. It's best to phone ahead -- one can never trust the mail these days....
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Michael De La Luna was reviewed earlier in www.artscope.net as part of "Textbook of Insanity."