“Yet for better or for worse we love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.”
—Jun’ichero Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, 1977
Imagine a young woman sitting in the accounts payable department of an Italian trading office in 1910. The afternoon is dragging interminably. She drifts into a reverie and starts to doodle on the invoice in front of her. Like many educated people of the time, she can draw with reasonable competence. She sketches the faces of her coworkers as she remembers them at the recent New Year’s fancy-dress party. The result of this graphic detour is a fascinating mixture of period commerce and art. Is it important that she never actually put pencil to paper and that it is you or I who decides to act out her part for her? Is the invoice worth less because we have created a fiction over a fact? Surely what matters is the degree of poignant emotion evoked by the resultant piece of paper. I love the idea of a creativity that honors the effects of time and makes mischief with history. Growing up in a society where hard, cold, and shiny are often highly valued, I find myself gravitating toward the opposite. Snow-blinded by bleached white paper, I crave smoky patina and shadowy aged surfaces.
The concept of order and chaos overlapping one another intrigues me. Whether it be vine-engulfed ruins or a new edifice emerging out of the jungle, there is something stimulating about the codependence of the contrived and the organic. Maybe that’s why many of us feel affection for weather-beaten, barnacle-encrusted ship’s figureheads or ancient sculptures with lopped-off arms and noses. As Walt Whitman put it, “The weed will win in the end.” It’s a pleasing idea, not because it takes pleasure in the ultimate demise of civilization, but because it is an affirmation of change.
I’m inclined to think that we, the children of the latter portion of the 20th century, bought the Emperor’s New Clothes when it comes to art philosophy. We’ve accepted a line of thought implying that aesthetics are purely a matter of individual taste and personal whim. Ironically, in so doing we’ve laid ourselves open to be led by cheap fad. Though it may not be a popular view, I believe that there is a universal aesthetic, an internal visual balance mechanism that defines beauty and composition. This means that the opposite is also true—equality is admirable, but why kid ourselves that ugly doesn’t exist. Awareness of balance and harmony is something that needs to be worked on and developed within us. As much as I respect the well-lit giants of the Renaissance, I’m not making an elitist plea for “high art”; on the contrary, my work tries to show that good art can be found in many a dark corner. It just has to be discovered, played with, nurtured, and appreciated. Only when we develop a strong sense of the aesthetic within the everyday will we avoid having crude and clumsy uglification served to us in the name of art and personal taste.
I can’t make up my mind if mail art has to pass through the post in order to make it “official.” If it does, anyone depositing their precious work in the postbox runs the risk of losing it to the postal ether. If the art doesn’t have to be posted, what defines it as mail art—the fact that it’s attached to an envelope? That seems an incredibly open-ended definition. My interest is a bit more specific: faux mail. Faux mail, according to me, is an envelope that has artwork added to it after it has already been through the mail and earned its maturity.
By working with old, used envelopes, I find I’m dealing with a form of precast truth—something that has already received its markings and cancellations and gone through a rite of passage. It bears history as a duelist carries his scars. Of course, I could simply leave these envelopes as pieces of postal memorabilia, but where’s the entertainment in that? I like to view an old envelope as an interesting starting point with grounds for improvement or, to be more provocative, as an opportunity to tamper with the mail. The best examples of faux mail are not merely decorative but reactive to the surface they reside on. They express a thought, a feeling, or an idea in both their style and their content.
The Postman’s Nightmare
Mail doesn’t always reach its destination. Sometimes it chases its intended recipient all round the globe. This piece of sheer chaos made a few detours, but the majority of its zigzag touring was down to me.
Most South and Latin American countries once produced very pleasing preprinted letter cards. The lizard rubber-stamping and the catapult mark help give the impression of a missive from a ship’s anthropologist.
Invoices, business forms, passports, visas, marriage and death certificates: there’s almost no end to institutional and commercial paperwork. Like most people, I get bogged down by the weight of having to respond to this avalanche of dry wordage. The occasional disrespectful riposte directed toward an authority can be most satisfying, especially if the body in question is a defunct empire—with no one left to complain about any irreverences.
By their nature, official documents take themselves rather seriously, which makes them perfect for a little teasing. This can mean adding an unexpected image to the text or simply putting artifacts alongside one another for unexpected comparison. The addition doesn’t have to be blatant: some of these papers need close inspection to see what you can insert in the small print.
For some reason there seems to be a proliferation of 19th-century eastern European legal documents in Vancouver, where I live. I’m drawn to the multiple variations of elegantly stamped Austro-Hungarian administration details and their fine handwriting. In a few years they’ll be gone—distributed more evenly across the universe—but for now I can buy them cheaply.
Bird of Prey
A French distiller and his (rubber-stamped) delivery boy, plus a Swedish fiscal.
The image doesn’t have to relate directly to the text. In this case the mysteriousness of the link is part of the attraction.
A couple of years ago I was in Denver looking around a store that sold old maps. The beautiful historical gems of cartography were either carefully framed or otherwise sealed from the elements. Even the oldest maps were amazingly well preserved and appropriately expensive. After ten minutes of quiet ogling, I sidled up to the storeowner and sheepishly asked if he had anything damaged and badly aged. He looked at me as though I were asking for a dry crust of bread in a five-star restaurant. I explained that I wasn’t a collector but I wanted the material for making artwork. (I tend to pump up what’s left of my English accent in cases like this because it helps portray me as eccentric rather than lunatic.)
This approach can lead to one of two responses: dealers consider my intentions sacrilegious (even though they will probably end up trashing the kind of stuff I want) or they become curious and want to know more about my creative endeavors. In this particular case, the latter variety of conversation ensued, and after a short while the owner descended into his basement and returned with a few small, heavily foxed maps. I glanced through the pile and plucked out a plum: a brown ink map of Egypt from the late 1700s. It was torn and distinctly worse for wear and at one point had been folded so that the left and right sides of the map had ghosted themselves onto their opposite halves. I loved it!
The Isle of Sey
Look carefully—this is not quite what it seems. Using a large Ordnance Survey map from the 1940s, I tore off small sections of the coastline and rebuilt a new, small island out of the pieces. Nota bene: Sey is yes backwards, and the middle of the island has a town called St. Lier.
In 1919 Max Ernst began to cut up and paste together line engravings from lurid novels and mechanical manuals, using the disembodied parts of the illustrations to make new pictures of dream-like and surreal nature. The appeal to him, and other artists that followed, was not only the speed of the method but also the way in which impulsive decisions and accidents of placement could supplement predictable thinking patterns. Ernst employed the laws of change to come up with images like a bizarre bird-headed woman and a top-hatted man teaching a mouse to rotate.
Engravings were the main means of representational graphic art, and they were in great abundance until photography muscled them out of the public limelight around the end of the 19th century. You can easily find them in old books and magazines, and they’re perfect for creating patchwork dreamscapes.
I’ve included a couple of examples to resemble direct descendants of Ernst’s work. My collages have a tighter, more finished look than his but cannot begin to match the jarring impact that his work had on the art-interested public of his day.
A simple construction, made from only four separate engravings. The head comes from two Victorian glass lamp shades and the soldier from the battle of Agincourt.
The Dodger’s Dream
There are thirty-one different torn pieces that made up this grossly over-the-top Dickensian melodrama.
When I was about nine I had a John Bull printing set consisting of minute back-to-front rubber letters that had to be slotted into a wooden groove with a pair of tiny tweezers. I think I printed my name twice!
Twenty years later I received a rubber stamp of a hippo for my birthday. I refrained from uttering, “That’s nice, but what the hell do I do with it?” I’d probably have thrown it in a drawer and forgotten about it if the foresighted gift-giver hadn’t also included a black ink pad in the package. I stamped the hippo on a scrap of paper, then gave it a twin; then I stamped the gas bill; then I stamped all the spare bits of paper on my table; then I stamped the back of my hand. After that I carefully put the hippo and the ink pad in a box … and forgot about them!
More years passed and I found them again. The ink pad had long since dried up, but I wanted to see if the hippo would work in a collage, so I bought a fresh pad and tried it out. It seemed awkward, but I could see the potential. I persisted. I tried applying it in different ways with different amounts of inking. Slowly I got the hang of how to integrate the image into the bigger picture.
My next leap came when I discovered a store that sold nothing but rubber stamps. I hate “cute,” so I passed over the shelves with teddy bears and floral flippery and homed in on the odd stuff—the insects, the archaic machines, and the prewar postal cancellations of Fiji. For a while, other people’s designs were ample to play with, but it was only a matter of time before I started doing my own rubber stamps.
The colors you use and the ground you choose make a huge difference to the appearance of a rubber-stamping. The two giraffes come from the same block but have a vastly different feel.
In order to convincingly cancel an envelope, it’s necessary to build a collection of rubber stamp cancellations.