Stamp of Approval

The Stamp Art and Postal History of Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna was recently published in the US and makes fascinating reading. The authors are mail artists, who teamed up in 1994 to pursue their joint practice; it usually took the form of appropriating readymade images, reproducing them on a colour printer and stamp perforator, sticking the stamps on self-addressed envelopes, and getting a friend to post the envelope back to them from a foreign country. The artwork was completed when the envelope was received by the artists by post, duly franked by the foreign country’s postal service.

The artists exhibited their artworks – the franked envelopes, together with sheets of the stamps they had made and used – and sold sets for around US$600. The artists practised in the US, from a studio located in the Chinatown district of Chicago, Illinois. Readers may recall the case of JS Boggs, the US artist based in London in the mid 1980s, who practised ‘moneyart’: he drew and coloured by hand reproductions of paper money, including Bank of England Treasury Notes, and was prosecuted at the Old Bailey for offences contrary to the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981. After a three-day trial before a judge and jury, Boggs was acquitted and continued to thrive as a money artist, exhibiting and selling his hand-crafted artwork for the face value of the note – and often higher. In Boggs’s successful defence, led by Geoffrey Robertson QC and solicitor Mark Stephens, the jury was convinced by an array of expert witnesses from the London art world who gave earnest (and entertaining) seminars from the witness box about the historical lineage of art as currency, bartering traditions, the economic value of art, the art marketplace, Dadaism, readymades and the Duchampian approach to appropriation of found objects by artists throughout the 20th Century. Sandy Nairne (now at Tate). Michael Compton (formerly of the Tate Gallery), and Rene Gimpel (Gimpel Fits Gallery) were among the key persuaders.

Three years ago Thompson and Hernandez de Luna were visited by US postal inspectors who had been requested by the Norwegian postal authorities to investigate the artists’ stamp which had been put on a letter posted in Oslo. The artists had reproduced on their stamp a copy of Gustav Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World, 1866, which depicted a frank image of female genitalia. The inspectors asked to see the original artwork and were shown the artists’ studio ‘stamp collection’, many copies of which the inspectors confirmed that they had already seen and seized. Moreover, the inspectors also confirmed that they had attended all the artists’ mail art exhibitions and were ‘on to them’. They were asked to sign a statement of ‘voluntaly discontinuance’, under the (somewhat hollow) threat of being arrested and having their artworks confiscated if they refused to cease their mail art practice.

The artists steadfastly refused to do so and continued their practice – save that they no longer had their ‘stamps’ mailed to themselves, but to co-operative friends and associates instead. Countries used for franking included Japan, Turkey, India, China, South Africa, Jamaica and Cuba.

The subject matter of the artworks was diverse – deliberately intended to draw the viewer’s attention to the image – ranging from images of Bugs Bunny, Viagra, the Spanish Inquisition, and ‘disgruntled’ postal employees. A most obvious send-up was an image of Monica Lewinsky’s celebrated blue dress which had a label printed on it saying ‘Property of Monica Lewinsky’; another was posted and franked in Cuba, with an image of the late US President J F Kennedy smoking a cigar. The ‘project’, as the artists call their work, received grants from the Illinois Arts Council and later began to receive further official recognition – the US Post Office issued an ‘official’ Bugs Bunny stamp. Moreover, the resale value of their works steadily increased, in many cases trebling in value after the artists had reduced their output, which has now all but ceased. However, letters they had asked to be posted to them in the past continue to arrive to surprise and please them.

It would seem that this form of mail art sagely sidestepped the law and its enforcement agencies; by not forging official stamps, but creating their own stamps which had the appearance of official stamps of the country from which they were posted. Such activity might have been illegal in the country of posting, but was certainly not an offence for which extradition would have been possible. Hence the difficulty of the US postal authorities in preventing the artists from operating in this way. There was also the question of disproportionate expense, which the authorities would have had to incur in terms of both staff time and money, in pursuing the artists for what in each posting would have amounted to a few dollars’ worth of lost revenue in the posting country.

The Dadaists of the early 20th Century made work which repudiated contemporary conventions and was intended to shock, and these mail artists certainly achieved those results. At this stage in the development of 21st-century art, it remains to be seen whether mail art will be viewed as having opened up new possibilities for visual work and contexts, or be disregarded as a whimsical footnote in the recorded history of Dada. Come what may in art historical terms, the use (or abuse) of the law as an intrinsic element in the artwork deserves some consideration and appraisal. Letters of enquiry (properly stamped) are welcomed!

© Henry Lydiate 2001

 

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.