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Fake stamps make for provocative art at Carl Hammer Gallery

A retrospective of local artist Michael Hernandez de Luna's work with postage provides satire at its sharpest.



Michael Hernandez de Luna has been designing phony stamps and sticking them on envelopes for more than 20 years. He's a satirist and provocateur who intentionally courts conflict. Because stamps are legal currency, using one's own designs could be construed as fraud—but Hernandez de Luna's creations aren't counterfeit, so he has never been arrested or prosecuted. And after all, who's really being deceived? Hernandez de Luna's unwitting collaborators, the United States Postal Service employees who are in charge of canceling stamps, could be viewed as the butt of the joke. Yet they are agents, however inept, of the public, so everyone is in some way implicated—we're all getting fooled. By involving a colossal bureaucracy like the USPS, Hernandez de Luna deepens his critique of the institutions that govern society.

After he has designed a new sheet, Hernandez de Luna affixes a stamp to a vintage envelope and attempts to mail it to himself or one of his friends. In "Michael Hernandez de Luna: Philatelic Adventures," the artist's new show at Carl Hammer Gallery, each sheet is displayed with the envelope that Hernandez de Luna mailed. On some letters he used just one stamp, others two or three. It's evident that some mailings were confiscated, because some sheets are missing more stamps than others. But judging from the fact that none of the sheets on display is missing more than two or three stamps, his success rate must be pretty good.

The targets of Hernandez de Luna's ire are manifold. Like the rest of the nation, he cannot resist commenting on the Trump phenomenon. Hernandez de Luna devotes several stamps to him—one series has Trump's face next to a naked woman blowing a trumpet with her ass. Yet Trump's campaign is already so absurd that it defies wit, sarcasm, or any other type of humor.

Other works are more subtle, for the better. One of my favorites is Bill's Little Black Book, which presents Hillary Clinton surrounded by the women to whom her husband has been linked; the envelope used to mail four of these stamps is from Clinton's current presidential campaign. Some images are more wistful than pointedly critical. In the middle of the sheet called The Diner Is Closed and Becoming a Massage Parlor (Homage to Edward Hopper) is one of the title artist's lonely burlesque dancers, surrounded by stamps of Nighthawks with FOR Sale signs on the window of the diner.

The USPS has already announced that it will change the way letters are processed, and perhaps stamps will disappear. But Hernandez de Luna's works will always have inherent value, even when stamps cease to be U.S. legal tender. And there's little doubt that he'll find some new way to stick it to the powers that be.  v

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