For its 35th anniversary, Camerawork goes postal

It's not often that a gallery show inspires you to think about how the art got there, in a practical sense. But when it comes to the genre of mail art, almost 200 pieces of which are displayed in SF Camerawork's current "Ersatz Group Exhibition," the message is in the method of delivery — guaranteed through rain, heat, and the gloom of night.

Mail art, simply put, is art that is disseminated through the postal service. The practice is stamped with a rather cloudy history, but most trace its popularization back to the 1960s, when artist Ray Johnson started a mail exchange group called the New York Correspondence School and a flurry of collages hit delivery slots all over the world. Mail art shares tenets with the Fluxus movement, which encouraged using all kinds of media, making small-scale art, and leaving some elements to chance. The practice also appeals to artists interested in exchange and collaboration, both of which continue to be important creative impulses in the Bay Area. Some exquisite-corpse–type additive works have circulated from artist to artist through the postal system for years.

For SF Camerawork curator Chuck Mobley, who helped organize "Ersatz," a mail art show represented a way to symbolize the gallery's symbiotic 35-year-old relationship with artists and curators. "We'd been wanting to do a members exhibition, and in the past Camerawork had always done juried exhibitions," he says. "I wanted to do something more inclusive and egalitarian, and perhaps a little more fun." The show features work by established and emerging artists, a combination the gallery has long championed, and at the end of its run, each participant will take home a randomly chosen work.

David Horvitz creates a postcard from the edge, titled "How to Escape a Photograph."
David Horvitz creates a postcard from the edge, titled "How to Escape a Photograph."

Because everything mailed was included, "Ersatz" presents a visual hodgepodge. Some of the more successful pieces play with the form of the postcard. David Horvitz contributes a triptych that depicts a man ascending (or descending, depending on the order in which the cards were received) a ladder in a field, an imaginative riff on the association of postcards with travel. Rebecca Palmer combines image with text, postcard-style, to tell the story of how she found inspiration in the shape of mold growing on bread. Her revelation — "that the universe is orderly and likes to send us pleasing designs" — could be read as a utopian vision of the post office.

Jeanne Friscia's letter, a blank page addressed to "God and Family," evokes a punchline twitch but little else. A letter addressed to photographer Judy Dater, however, wades into truly mysterious territory: It seems to be an expression of devotion from a foot fetishist who, hilariously or disturbingly, has missed the point of her art, which often critiques the female nude as passive male sex object.

Mail art could be considered a genre on its way out — after all, the U.S. Postal Service is a shrinking industry, projecting a $6 billion loss this year — but in fact, as "Ersatz" demonstrates, it represents some aspects vital to current artists: the creative stimulation of working within a prescribed system, the ability to circumvent traditional curatorial venues, and the pleasure of collaboration. And, as Mobley points out, "The idea that everything is electronic is erroneous. People are still actually printing, putting stuff on paper." Maybe we'll see a resurgence of postal creativity as people grow weary of Facebook and Twitter. Mail carriers everywhere await.

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