Marcel Duchamp, who horrified the establishment in the early 20th century by displaying a urinal as a work of art, said, “Since Courbet, it has been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. … I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.” He opened a door to new and exciting art movements.
Ray Johnson was one of the artists who walked through that door. After studying painting with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, he left the school to become the elusive creator of a new genre of art. He began sending clever collages and photocopies to friends through the mail. There was always a brilliant visual pun or reference to an inside joke. Frequently, there was a written instruction for the recipient of the work to “add to and send” to another person, who was then to “add to and return to the artist.” Johnson’s concept spread, and soon there were artists all over the world making art, not for the market, but as a means of expression and connection.
Carlos Stewart, owner of the Courtyard Gallery, a space hidden away in the back corner of the Scully’s courtyard on North Lexington Avenue, decided to put out a call for mail art—Anything Goes—Everything Shows. The call went out late, so Stewart was more than a little surprised when he received 177 entries—20-some from Western North Carolina, the rest from across the United States and 12 foreign countries.
Stewart says that he particularly enjoys this kind of work for several reasons. “I like the fact that this work is approachable—it invites the viewer to touch it, to take out the push pin and look at the back side, to look at the envelope; and participation is open to everyone.”
Walker Vining, 17, of Asheville, contributed a three-dimensional fish with a carefully finished surface encrusted with postage stamps. Another young artist with a totally different aesthetic is 19-year-old Natasha Hill. She sent her drawing of a homeless man dressed in a wife-beater shirt made from tiny bits of newsprint. Her work depicts the same degree of obsession as Vining’s, but with a totally different result.
Most of the work, however, comes from mature artists. There are a number of wonderful collage pieces, many with open-ended messages—all questions and no answers. Many of the works arrived in envelopes that make up part of the art.
German Dernier Langes’ envelope is covered with a transparent mauve wash and decorated with a fanciful dark-blue figure with a long beak and wings.
Fabio Sassi sent three paintings from Italy on some kind of mysterious black plastic-like paper. These works tell a narrative of sorts: The first depicting a digital-looking space ship with beams pointed toward the earth, the second with a hand pointing up to the earth, and the third showing Apollo the Archer standing atop the stylized planet. The envelope is quite different—there are stamps of Daffy Duck, a pointing finger, a spiral, a wood screw and a bike. A bike tire track runs across the whole thing.
There is also a collection of colored pencil drawings on business-sized envelopes signed by Kenneth Brown #0050335. The return address is Mountain View Correctional Institution.
Stewart says that the Oteen Post Office played a big part in the exhibition. “They were extremely helpful and enjoyed getting things like a shoe, a doll and a rubber chicken in the mail. They had a real appreciation of the concept.”
Impressively, post-office employees took the time to decipher five tiny pictographs—a figure behind a tall desk, a house with a lawn and a mailbox, the corner of a studio with an easel, a post-office drawer and balloon-like shapes held in a fist making up the numbers of the Courtyard Gallery’s post-office box.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]
who: Anything Goes—Everything Shows
what: Mail art
where: Courtyard Gallery, 66 North Lexington Ave.
when: Through Tuesday, Oct. 30 (Free. 273-3332)