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Fun With Philately

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Fake Stamps and Other Mischievous Behaviors: Michael Hernandez de Luna and Michael Thompson

at Morlen Sinoway, through April 2

Stamping Ground: Michael Thompson

at Workshop Print, through April 25

Sleep Late: Jesse Bercowetz and Aimee Mower

at Beret International, through March 28

During the Vietnam war I sent a letter to a friend using a U.S. commemorative stamp bearing the image of a Revolutionary War leader. Next to it I drew a crude imitation stamp of the same size with a picture of Ho Chi Minh and a caption reading "Ho Chi Minh: Heroic Revolutionary Leader." My friend--who was a bit freaked out by my audacity, since we were all more paranoid in those years, not without reason--noticed with some amusement that the post office had canceled my Ho stamp and left the real stamp untouched.

For several years now Chicago artists Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna have been making fake stamps with a computer and laser printer or color copier. Like my rendering of Ho Chi Minh, their subjects often offer mischievous alternatives to typical commemorative stamps: a sheet of bare-breasts stamps, for instance, and another showing a postal worker with a rifle captioned "Disgruntled Postal Employee/Handle With Care." They aren't the first artists to make their own stamps--20 or 30 years ago Donald Evans drew fantasy stamps, and Fluxus artist Robert Watts actually printed fake stamps suggesting that Fluxus was a country. Doubtless Thompson and Hernandez de Luna aren't even the first people to do it as a joke; if I thought of it on my own in the 60s, surely others preceded me.

What's different about these two artists is that they've consistently tried to use their stamps for postage. At one time their success rate for getting envelopes bearing only their stamps through various postal systems--they've tried not only in the United States but in Japan and several European countries--was about 50 percent. But it's dropped to half that lately, Thompson told me, and about a month ago both artists received cease-and-desist letters from U.S. postal inspectors. Both may still design stamps, but it appears that the performance aspect of the project is over.

I can't say I'm completely sorry about this: their attempts to use the stamps as postage are rather troubling, garnering press but at the risk of making the duo seem mostly provocateurs. Seeing sheets of stamps displayed together with a successfully canceled envelope gives the work a sensational bad-boy quality that's less sophisticated than the art itself. At first glance Thompson seems to choose subjects that are merely as irritating as possible to the country whose stamps he's imitating, while Hernandez de Luna uses erotic and excretory imagery seemingly designed to tweak conservative sensibilities rather than actually say something.

Their work had its origin in a 1990 Garry Trudeau comic strip, each panel of which was designed as a stamp. Thompson didn't even see the strip but heard that people were successfully using the panels as postage; when he saw a cartoon stamp of Bugs Bunny in a magazine, he cut it out and used it successfully, and he was off, soon to be joined by his friend Hernandez de Luna. (Some early Thompson designs on view at Workshop Print include a sheet of birds and another of early aircraft; these were taken from preprinted stickers Thompson found and are not in themselves especially provocative. But both galleries also include samples of his more biting satires.)

With a caustic literalness that seems to have first entered American culture with the original Mad comics of the early 50s, Thompson offers dark inversions of traditional commemorative stamps. Celebrating the culture of the nation that issues them, conventional stamps give us not only revolutionary leaders but presidents, thinkers and scientists, fine artists, and lately popular artists such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Such stamps advertise the nation's wealth in land, animals, and industry. Thompson gives us instead a stately, elegantly dark Lincoln with a pistol pointed at his head and a caption reading "fords theater." This stamp presents not the mythic Lincoln but the historic Lincoln as our country actually treated him. Similarly, Thompson shows former congressman Dan Rostenkowski in a powerful pose but with a caption--"Buy Sell Trade"--that reminds us of the activities that landed him in the joint. For a stamp successfully used as postage to Thompson's address from Hamburg, he chose to represent Germany's most famous recent terrorist, Ulrike Meinhof, and he tweaks Italian stamps in a design showing a black hand and dagger and an Italian text that translates "The black hand will strike" (a phrase the Mafia is said to write on the doors of those it threatens).

What makes these stamps work as parody is that they're so simple and factual. Thompson's characterization of Rostenkowski doesn't exaggerate at all. And he relies on simple facts to spoof stamps that celebrate food products (one actual U.S. commemorative celebrated sheep): he designed a British stamp with a profile of a headless cow captioned "Mad Cow," and a Japanese stamp with a whale and the caption "Eat Whale," referring to Japanese insistence on "harvesting" whales despite an international ban.

Even some of Hernandez de Luna's raunchier stamps are realistic in some sense. One places the profile of a man within a circular background, echoing the design of 50s posters--but the man is urinating, a bodily function not normally illustrated but arguably more common than the activities that usually are illustrated. The obnoxiously fetishistic sheet of women's breasts at least also shows different colors--all races are represented here. An eye-tickling stamp of Mickey and Minnie not only uses colors even brighter and sillier than one expects from Disney, it shows that in addition to a bouquet Mickey sports a little hard-on. Though this depiction might be considered pornographic, it's also merely a literal illustration of the state of the wooing male animal. And not all of Hernandez de Luna's stamps are erotic: one makes a heroic icon of a giant Prozac pill, spoofing our national deification of antidepressants.

These two artists don't always work in canceled stamps, however. Thompson's show at Workshop Print includes not only sheets of stamps mounted with canceled ones, but also offers for sale individual uncanceled stamps mounted on small cards. And Hernandez de Luna at Sinoway is also represented by collages in which breast stamps are placed over photos of nude women at breast level--making the stamps even more literally realistic. Some of Thompson's nonstamp works are on exhibit at Sinoway too: several prints as well as a group of erector-set sculptures, some of which make simple music--metal plates clanging together--when cranks are turned. These have a certain charm: their musical function takes them out of the realm of the purely visual in the same way that using artists' stamps for postage gives the stamps a performative aspect; music sculptures go back at least to Duchamp, however, and the duo's stamps are likely to remain the focus of attention. What makes the best of this art work is the intelligent, systematic use of the form of the commemorative stamp to address subjects traditionally swept under the rug.

Lots of art is merely provocative, and at first I saw Thompson's and Hernandez de Luna's designs that way--until I realized how consistent their choices were, how literally their parodies mimicked commemorative designs. Hernandez de Luna's every-stamp-a-different-breast sheet, for example, reminded me of those sheets of commemoratives that offer 20 different flowers or cartoon figures, intended to increase sales to collectors, who now have to purchase a whole sheet rather than one stamp or four. "Want me, buy me," many commemorative designs seem to say, and Hernandez de Luna simply carries that call to an extreme by depicting standard objects of male desire. But actually using the stamps, taking the aesthetic act outside the gallery, can deflect attention from the quality of the designs themselves.

The idea of making art that works on a level other than the purely visual one, of art that includes some action in the world, has been handled with more grace and economy by others. The 12 pieces by Aimee Mower and Jesse Bercowetz at Beret International include several excellent examples of satirical or parodic works that establish elegant, precise relationships with everyday life. Mower's ironically titled Tasty Choice Sampler offers decorative designs in cake-decorating gels on 11 different panels: she renders swirling spirals, concentric boxes, and woven-looking patterns in bright, cheerful, almost cartoony colors that mock the purity of earlier color-field abstraction. Even more transgressive is the fact that the medium conflates art with food, the artist's "originality" with cake decorating.

Mower's Coconut Wall consists of alternating vertical stripes of coconut flakes and marshmallow flattened on a wall and even spreading out on the floor below. This is doubly transgressive--a giant Barnett Newman or Gene Davis "stripe" painting made of kitschy foodstuffs that seem to have been gooped on the wall so thickly they're dripping off. Mower also gives us the sculptural equivalent of Hernandez de Luna's urination stamp: in Fountain, a supine boy appears to urinate into his own mouth. The bright colors and the boy's blank expression evoke the cartoon world of Hernandez de Luna's Mickey and Minnie stamp; though hand modeled in different colors of Sculpey, a medium that hardens on baking, the piece has the look of a mass-manufactured object. In this clever, kinky twist on Duchamp's most famous readymade, a urinal of the same title, Mower reminds us of the everyday things usually left unrendered.

Bercowetz also tweaks the traditional monumentality of color-field painting in his Snake Eyes, four large, stark black-and-white panels representing negativity and failure. Two show single white dots on black fields, representing the "zero" of dice throwing, while the third contains the unlucky number 13, and the fourth "0%"--street talk for a total loser. But the piece in this show that most recalled Thompson's and Hernandez de Luna's stamps, with their physical histories, was Bercowetz's Target. Using one of the two subjects that made Jasper Johns famous in the 50s, Bercowetz paints a "target" of concentric circles on a large sheet of drywall. But unlike Johns, Bercowetz encourages the viewer to use the target: he makes available a supply of pointy metal "ninja stars" that, if thrown correctly, will stick in the target or in the wall surrounding it. His piece has none of the purity of a Johns disk but rather is perforated with messy tears, some with the stars still in them.

By asking you to attack it, this artwork avoids the finger pointing of the others' stamp art. The tears in the wall around the target add a feeling of unease and even danger--how far off target will the stars fly? And the physical damage Target invites threatens the gallery's traditional purity. Seeing the results of past shots, viewers are encouraged to take some of their own, participating not only in making the artwork but in destroying it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fake Stamps by Michael Thompson; "Fountain" by Aimee Mower.

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