Return to press index page
Mail: A visit to Terra Candella may net this work by Harley.
Stamps of Approval
Philately by the people for the people
Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc.
From the March 13-19, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
By Gretchen Giles
On an early March day, His Serene Highness, Painter of Unicorns
of Terra Candella, is himself leading a private museum tour. Culled
from his personal collection, the work of 50 artists from 15 countries
adorns the upper floor of the Sonoma County Museum. A full-sized
outline of the Serene Highness' own dignified nude person is under
one frame, darkened at the edges by sumi ink and adorned with
postage and rubber stamps. Though this is a museum, the air is
anything but rarefied.
His Serene Highness is more familiarly known 'round these parts
as the mono-monikered Guerneville painter and mail artist Harley,
and this large accumulation of artist-made stamps (known as "artistamps"),
envelopes, and obscure philately is his second life-time collection.
He donated the first lifetime's worth to Ohio's Oberlin College
in 1995, a culmination of 20 years of trading and collecting,
totaling some 6,000 pieces of work by 1,250 different artists.
Subverting the system while avidly participating within it, mail
art is a proudly proletariat pastime, practiced by an unusual
set of people, not a few of whom find that sending a single, brilliant
piece of tiny work to a stranger in another country entirely represents
their preferred round of human interaction.
Literally a correspondence school that anyone so inclined may
join, mail art encourages side-stepping the tightlipped insular
hip of galleries and museums. Its transmission is regularly carried
out by postal workers the world over, though in rougher countries,
the art must be delivered by courier, as anything distinctive
is generally expected to be seized.
Most of the artists collected in "Post Modern Post: International
Artistamps," showing through April 27 at the SCM, have created
their own stamps, though many also fashion the envelopes as artworks,
and some--like His Serene Highness--have their own imaginary countries,
replete with postal cancels, seals, and tax bars.
Presiding over Terra Candella, loose Latin for "land of light"
(a presence more of mind than real estate), Harley serves as a
guest curator in conjunction with the museum's examination of
its building's origins as a post office, even going so far as
to obtain an official U.S. "first day" postmark for
March 8, 2003, remaining good for 30 days and available for stamping
in the museum's gift shop.
The inwardly curled world of avant-garde philately includes one
Clemente Padin, an Uruguayan who was sent to prison for two years
for the subversive act of practicing mail art. The Argentinean
artist Edgardo Antonio Vigo turned to making artistamps after
his 18-year-old son was "disappeared" by the government
and his grief was too large to be contained by just one continent.
Partners Alexander Kholopov and Natalia Lamanova take their official
Russian documents and overlay them in a perforated collage of
new economy dissent. In another gallery, Lamanova has covered
a huge "stamp" sheet with a nude black-and-white portrait
of herself glaring dispassionately from a couch.
The Japanese artist Ryosuke Cohen collects the artistamps sent
to him, screens them onto oversized pieces of paper, and then
invites such dignitaries as Harley to lie upon them to be traced.
He inks out the edges, the sumi eerily not quite covering the
images underneath, resulting in gorgeous "portraits"
with hundreds of voices pulsing in them.
Harley pauses before the seemingly playful work of Italian mail
artist Guglielmo Cavellini, whose oversized stamps feature droll
self-portraits of himself next to reproductions of Van Gogh, Cezanne,
Warhol, and the deposed Shah of Iran, all offered as equals.
"His family owned the equivalent of WalMart, and Warhol probably
did do his portrait," Harley says. "His shtick was 'self
historicalization,' the penultimate ego trip, megalomaniacal excess."
So these aren't farcical? He shrugs.
One artist regularly sends Harley entire books filled with work.
The pressure to create new artistamps to send out into the world
must be enormous once one begins to succumb to the near-anonymous
lure of mail art. Harley admits to keeping his correspondence
down to "a small group," but looks around at what he
assures is but a portion of his collection and sighs, "You
could do this all the time."
'Post Modern Post: International Artistamps' exhibits through
April 27 at the Sonoma County Museum, 425 Seventh St., Santa Rosa.
Gallery hours are Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-4pm. Admission is $3
for nonmembers. 707.579.1500.
Return to press index page