Going postal with Mail Art

Is Mail Art still a thing? With the decline in snail mail, I would have thought that Mail Art was redundant. However, last year in ArtNet News, Taylor Dafoe wrote that Mail Art enjoyed a renaissance with all the COVID-19 lockdowns. I don’t know; I haven’t received any recently but New York bookstore Printed Matter is still receiving them and has an exhibition of mail art in their window.

I last remember receiving some mail art in the 1980s, mainly from an undergraduate fine arts student and friend Paul Leech. So I messaged him and asked him how he heard of mail art. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember and guessed that it was reading about Dada or Fluxus? Even then, it felt like the long tail of an art movement that started over twenty years earlier when Ray Johnson founded the New York Correspondence School of Mail Art.

The decorated envelope and postcards are almost as old as postal systems. And the post was an essential feature of art movements from Dada to Fluxus. What made mail art different was is that Mail Art is not about simply receiving art by post like the Art Box Club.  Mail Art is art that is consciously about the postal system. If art is a form of communication, then Mail Art is communication about a communication system.

Mail Art isn’t mentioned in any of the standard art history texts about art in the twentieth century. Even though, according to Stewart Homes (The Assault on Culture – Utopian currents from Lettrisme to Class War, 1988), it is the second-largest art movement of the twentieth century in terms of participation.

Mail Art exists along with the zines as an anti-elitist, democratic art form at the intersection of folk art and fine art. It is not art for art collectors to spend a lot of money on. It is not art for display in institutional art galleries where the aesthetics of awe are employed.

Leech was doing both zines and mail art; later, he made Phredpost artistamps a form within mail art developed by Anna Banana. Mail Art, zines and artistamps are very accessible in terms of techniques and materials inviting greater participation. The democratic nature of the art form, along with the inexpensive and accessible materials, means that anyone can participate.

Unlike commercial gallery art, where gallery directors, collectors, and others act as gatekeepers limiting participation, Mail Art has almost no gatekeepers. The only one that mattered was the post office, an institution that was unmistakably outside of the art world. A couple of artists have told me how good Australia Post is with mail art. Bark, pumpkins and other materials making it through the postal system provided that it had appropriate postage. Leech was pushing the postal system, testing its limits. His attempt to send a stamp addressed on the back of the stamp failed.

Is this still the long tail of mail art or a revival? Will people return to receiving tangible physical objects in their letterboxes instead of speculating on NFT online?

Paul Leech, Postscards with holes, 1984

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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