Review #3 - Artistamps/Francobolli d'Artista
- THE VANCOUVER SUN, Saturday, May 26, 2001
MIX, p. E14
Way gone postal
Artist stamps are all over the map, as a West Vancouverites new book
by Andrew Scott
The Southeast Asian kingdom of Occussi-Ambeno celebrated the 10th
anniversary of its magic mushroom industry with a postage stamp. The
sultanate of Upper Yafa issued two recent stamps to honour the Creator
of the Universe. Bimbolonia, an independent state, has done some lovely
things, philatelically speaking, with origami. And the micro-nation Tui
Tui produced a three-stamp souvenir sheet to commemorate the 47th
birthday of its co-chieftain, a Seattle man named Dogfish.
You may be forgiven if you havent heard of these countries. They,
along with such stamp-issuing entities as Fantippo, Nerieni Atoll,
Nowitaland and Mraur, are figments of artists imagination. And the
secretary to the high priest of Mraur, who actually lives in West
Vancouver and manifests himself in the physical realm as the artist
James Felter, has complied a richly illustrated history of stamp and
mail art called Artistamps/Francobolli dArtista ($14.94 [USD]).
This bilingual, English-Italian book, published in Italy by AAA
Edizioni, includes an introduction by Italian artist Vittore Baroni, a
lengthy overview by Felter of the artists, actions and events shaping a
new movement in international art, and chapters featuring the work of
41 individual artists from 15 (real) countries. Canada is represented
by three westerners: Felter, Ed Varney of Vancouver, and the Sunshine
Coasts Anna Banana, who served the book as special advisor. Its too
bad that AAA Edizionis budget didnt run to colour, as the subject
matter loses pizzazz in black and white. Even so, Artistamps is a wierd
and wonderful collection, full of vitality, humour, parody and
The philatelic erotica of Chicagos Michael de Luna, or instance, looks
perfectly postal at first glance. Its small wonder that Luna can sneak
his provocative images, masquerading as real stamps, through the mail
system. Another U.S. artist, Dennis Highberger, creates political
messages; his fake Chinese stamp commemorating Wang Dan, who was
sentenced to 11 years in prison for writing articles critical of the
government, could never have been officially issued. Many stamp artists
promote causes. Others are more interested in exploring the aesthetics
of miniaturization, or unusual technical and graphic effects.
Some artists are way, way off the map. Alexander Kholopov features
images of manhole covers from Moscows sewer system on his stamps. Guy
Bleus of Belgium creates postage you can wear. Russell Butler, also
known as buZ Blurr, is behind Caustic Jelly Post from Surrealville.
Steve Smith produces Art Gone Postal. David Cole is the Paumonock
Traveller. Ed Higgins is responsible for Doo Da Post, Chuck Welch for
R.I.Post, Dennis Highberger for Boog Post. The names say it all.
Before we get too far out (where a souvenir sheet by Gregory Byrd
commemorates the first visit to Earth of Humpbucket N. Knoph and his
sidekick Pistola), some definitions and art-stamp history may prove
helpful. The preferred term for an art or artists stamp, apparently,
is an artistamp. Artistamps are printed in multiples, preferably on
gummed paper, and are usually perforated (often on refurbished
19th-century perforating machines retrieved from crumbling barns or
dusty attics). They are produced in editions, signed and numbered.
They normally carry a denomination and indicate an issuing authority.
Artistamps dont have to be sent through the mail, though they often
are, either as surreptitious substitutes for the real thing, or in
combination with legitimate postage. The resulting envelopes, adorned
with additional images, slogans, logos, messages and rubber-stamped
pseudo-postmarks (or postoids, another entire realm of artistic
endeavour), are known as mail art. Mail art is populism in action - a
means of exchanging inexpensively produced art works.
Mail art and artistamps have been with us for a while. Some of the
first examples were produced in Russia in 1917 for the fantasy country
of Mikia by a youngster named Michael Hitrovo. Twenty years later, when
Hitrovo was living in the U.S. he recreated and displayed 800 of his
hand-printed Mikia Stamps.
In the 1950s French New Realist Yves Klein painted over existing
postage stamps and used them successfully to send art exhibit
invitations through the mail. New York artist Ray Johnson mailed
collages to his friends, a practise that evolved into a full-blown
mail-art network, the New York Correspondence School. Another U.S.
artist, Donald Evans, painted thousands of delicate watercolour stamp
images for more than 50 imaginary nations. He died in a studio fire at
age 32 but gained fame as the result of a major posthumous exhibition
By the 1960s, artistamps were on the verge of becoming a global
phenomenon. Andy Warhol got in the action. Several members of the art
group Fluxus, including Robert Watts and Ken Friendman, produced sheets
of stamps. The visual arts program at Simon Fraser University turned
into a hotbed of artistamp activity in the late 1960s. In 1974 the
first international exhibition of stamp art opened there, which brings
us full circle, because that show was organized by none other than James
Artistamps and mail art are many things to many people. To some, they
represent a rebellion against government monopoly, though any creative
circumvention of the postal system is usually a symbolic act, not a
mercenary one. Stamp artists are not forgers in search of illicit gain
(though several have been fined and even jailed for their efforts).
Their work, rather, can be seen as a comment on authority and on the
official world reflected by real stamps.
Canada Post, for instance, has one of the most imaginative (and
commercial) postage stamp programs in existence. Many of the
corporations products are as innovative as those of the stamp artists.
Canada Post has produced several holograms on stamps. It issues stamps
of all kings of strange shapes, and regularly features art by
established Canadian painters. Some stamps, such as last years
gorgeous, embossed Year of the Dragon issue, are masterpieces of Graphic
design. And for a mere $24.95 you can send Canada Post a personal
photograph and receive back 25 perfectly legal postage stamps composed
mostly of your face - or that of your child or your garden gnome. Now
But the occasions that Canada Post chooses to honour leave much to be
desired. The 125th anniversary of the Royal Military College? The
centenary of the Department of Labour? Twenty-five years of
Petro-Canada? Recent artistamps, by comparison, have celebrated Viet
Nam war resisters, Sapphic love, bananas (frequently), lips, feet and
the consumption of coffee. They have appeared in the form of love
poems, nude self-portraits, colour photocopies and crossword puzzles.
You can learn a lot about the current state of stamp art from this book,
but you wont find out much about its author/compiler, who was
introduced to art by his grandmother and to philately by his father.
Felter scarcely mentions his own considerable creations, and the two
pages he is allotted as an individual artist show only a modest
selection of his work. To discover more, a visit to Felters brilliant
Web site (www.faximum.com/jas) is in order. His elegant virtual
gallery, complete with library and café are refreshing graphic refuges
from the jumble and clutter of the Internet.
Many of his Web pages are dedicated to an ongoing fascination with
artistamps; others explore his latest preoccupation, the Jas Millennium
Project. This memorial to the 20th century is ultimately concerned, as
are many of Felters images, with forging new ways of looking at the
commonplace. The project will cover an entire room with patterned
tiles composed of 12,000 used cigarette packages collected by Felter
or sent to him by artists from around the world. Im desperately
trying to quit smoking, he says.
Felter believes those who make artistamps are the global villages
indigenous people. They are not only having fun, suggests Felter; they
are collectively expanding the boundaries of perception, communication
and art. You have to go right up to an artistamp and look at it
closely. You spend much more time with art this way, says Felter.
Artistamps are a very intimate art form.
Who can quarrel with intimacy, good times and creative expansion?
Heres to the citizens of Adanaland and Deh Sedang, the exiles of
Western Sahara and the Kemp Land proletariat. All hale the empress of
Ladd Avenue. Long live the King of Terra Candella.
And keep those postcards coming.
Write and philately buff Andrew Scott lives on the Sunshine Coast.
Jas W Felter
2707 Rosebery Avenue
West Vancouver, BC, CANADA V7V 3A3
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