Cleopatra, the notoriously beautiful Queen of Egypt, may have been the world’s first mail art aficionado. The Empress had herself wrapped inside a carpet and hand-delivered at the feet of Mark Antony.
Since then, mail art has evolved into an international art form with thousands of active practitioners, including Carlos Steward, curator of Asheville’s very own mail art exhibit, “Anything Goes, Everything Shows.” The open invitation exhibit attracted close to 360 entries from 30 countries including Europe, Russia, South America, Asia, the United States, Canada and Mexico.
“I saw mail art in a European gallery, I believe in Germany in the ’60s or ’70s, and was intrigued with it. I just started doing it and sending it out as part of what I do. I was part of the network in those days. We had done mail art in New York State at our studio for Contemporary Arts Center. We loved the energy and creativity of that mail art exhibit and started thinking about it again last year when we had a space available and wondered what we could exhibit. There’s a very active mail art tradition here — people respond very positively to mail art in Asheville,” he says.
In the ’50s and ’60s, a group of artists, unhappy with the established art scene and its emphasis on galleried art and juried shows, decided to make a statement through a decentralized movement whose foundation would be art for art’s sake, with no controlling authority or leadership deciding on a piece’s worthiness. Mail art is simply art that uses the postal system as a democratic medium, utilizing postcards, illustrated letters and envelopes, rubber stamped images, collage, postage stamps, zines, artist trading cards, faux postage — literally anything that can be stamped, mailed and delivered.
“I love it. There’s nothing better than receiving bundles of mail art and exploring the offering that people send and trying to understand where they’re coming from,” says Steward. “It’s extremely creative. It’s just so much fun going to the Oteen post office every day. We made sure entries are addressed to a post office box. The mail is the media, so postal workers have to get involved. They’re an integral part of the process.”
According to Steward, mail art is completely democratic, without fees, juries, restrictions or censorship. Hence the show’s title, “Anything Goes, Everything Shows.” “To me, it’s the embodiment of the mail art tradition. It’s uncensored. No matter what you come up with, whether an art critic thinks it’s good, bad, ugly or even pornographic, it’s going on the wall,” says Steward.
With its all-encompassing philosophy, anyone who takes the time to create and send in an entry is welcome. “This is art for everyone, no matter if you’re a fine artist or have never done art before in your life,” says Steward. “Anyone can do it. All it takes is a little bit of creativity and putting some time and effort into drawing a picture or painting an envelope or making a postcard or painting a shoe and sending it in. You can participate in mail art and be recognized in the same way as the best fine gallery artist in the world would be recognized. It’s not about how technically good you are. It’s about creative thinking and freedom of expression.”
The most unusual pieces — and often most popular — are three-dimensional objects. Last year, Steward received a painted shoe with the delivery address on its sole and return address on its tongue, a decorated plastic chicken, a fish emblazoned with stamps, a floppy disk with a glued-on container holding a message inside and a decorated cupie doll.
Mail art, says Steward, is designed to be handled and examined. “We put it on a wall or hang it. We’ll put pushpins in it, we’ll put fishhooks in it and hang it from the ceiling. Mail art should be taken off the wall and looked at and felt. Sometimes you can’t discover how an artist has put their piece together until you take it off the wall and feel it and really look at it closely.
“It’s our only exhibit people come early to,” says Steward. “They’ll stay late. They are so into it, looking at every single piece and trying to discover things. It takes a long time to look at a collage or a complex piece. They’re small, but very detailed. Each piece may take five or ten minutes before you get it, what the artist is trying to say. Some of it does require a lot of introspection because you don’t get the joke at first, but after looking at it for a few minutes, you’ll suddenly burst out laughing because you’ll get it. That’s why we encourage people to pull it off the wall, handle it, look at it and stick it back on the wall any way they want.”
For those who may have missed getting an entry into this year’s “Anything Goes, Everything Shows” exhibit, don’t fret. Steward is accepting entries for next year’s show, scheduled to begin August 1, 2009. “This is going to be an annual event; as long as I’m around, we’re going to have a mail art exhibition,” says Steward.