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Review #3 - Artistamps/Francobolli d'Artista

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  • Jas W Felter
    THE VANCOUVER SUN, Saturday, May 26, 2001 MIX, p. E14 Way gone postal Artist stamps are all over the map, as a West Vancouverite’s new book amply proves by
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2001
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      THE VANCOUVER SUN, Saturday, May 26, 2001
      MIX, p. E14

      Way gone postal
      Artist stamps are all over the map, as a West Vancouverite’s new book
      amply proves

      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 haven’t heard of these countries. They,
      along with such stamp-issuing entities as Fantippo, Nerieni Atoll,
      Nowitaland and Mraur, are figments of artist’s 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 d’Artista ($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
      Coast’s Anna Banana, who served the book as special advisor. It’s too
      bad that AAA Edizioni’s budget didn’t 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 Chicago’s Michael de Luna, or instance, looks
      perfectly postal at first glance. It’s 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 Moscow’s 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 artist’s 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 don’t 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 1950’s 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
      and book.

      By the 1960’s, 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 1960’s. 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
      corporation’s 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 year’s
      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
      that’s creative.

      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 won’t 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 Felter’s 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 Felter’s 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. “I’m desperately
      trying to quit smoking,” he says.

      Felter believes those who make artistamps are the global village’s
      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?
      Here’s 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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