Mail Me Art: Going Postal with the World's Best Illustrators and Designers Paperback – 27 Mar 2009
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This book showcases the 200 best illustrations from the Mail Me Art project along with project credits and interviews with 16 of the illustrators. Readers will enjoy the variety of unique art produced by artists around the world and will be inspired by the challenge of shipping art through the mail. They will also gain insight into the process and challenges of creating the art through interviews.
About the Author
Darren Di Lietos' website, the Little Chimp Society, is one of the most popular illustration news portals on the Internet. Darren is a full-time freelance designer, and has started to pursue a career in illustration and web development.
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The book makes an interesting survey of contemporary artists/designers/illustrators whose work errs toward the slightly alternative. There are brief interviews with 17 of the contributors, which are interesting, but could have been more so. I felt the questions that were asked (the same of everyone, rather than personalising with regard to artist's work, etc) restricted the potential answers somewhat.
I didn't find this book quite as interesting as I had hoped - overall, a bit disappointing, but definitely still worth a look. You should also check out 'Envelopes: A Puzzling Journey through the Royal Mail' by Harriet Russell.
What in the book is really conspicuous by its absence, though, is any real knowledge of over forty years of mail art activities. Even if art by correspondence remains an underestimated and underground art phenomenon, it has been nevertheless documented in thousands of catalogues, art magazines, books, articles (see John Held Jr.'s Mail Art: An Annotated Bibliography, The Scarecrow Press, 1991), and also in many web sites. You simply cannot sweep the complex history of correspondence art under the carpet. If Di Lieto had made the effort of a little research into the tradition (and the present) of mail art, he would not have come up with such an inaccurate piece of information as when he states that "unlike regular mail, there is often nothing inside (a mail art envelope)": quite the opposite is true! Since Di Lieto name-drops in his introduction "the late pop artist Ray Johnson, who is often considered the father of the (mail art) movement", he cannot plead complete ignorance. With a little insight into the motivations that lie behind the growth of a planetary "eternal network" of creative correspondents, still involving today hundreds of postal networkers, the author would have found out, for instance, that mail art is traditionally considered "a gift" and not something in need of a price tag (as he requests in his interviews to the participating authors).
The global mail art community is not restricted only to illustrators and graphic designers, but also includes painters, sculptors, performers, poets, novelists, musicians, filmmakers, philosophers, mad scientists, amateurs and people from all walks of life. The aim of mail art is not (only) to produce spectacular images on envelopes. In actual fact, the medium usually tackles a broad range of counter-cultural, social, ecological and utopian issues: as an introduction to mail art theory and practices, see Networked Art by Craig J. Saper (University of Minnesota Press, 2001) and the collection of essays At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet (The MIT Press, 2005). Mail art works are rarely "art for art's sake", they tend to be part of an ongoing collective dialogue, a process of open, free, anti-hierarchical and interactive communication that long predates the so called "social networks" of the Web 2.0.
Only an handful of works reproduced in Mail Me Art deal with the concepts of communication and postal transmission, even these in a rather shy and mild way. We do not see attempts at challenging the postal medium (for example, by using fake "artist's stamps"), or at projecting art statements that go much beyond the sheer demonstration of wit and pictorial prowess. Above all, these nice pieces of postal art do not attempt to become part of a networking process by requesting in some way a feedback from the receiver, they are "finished" and ready to be framed (though Di Lieto also proposes to buy them and forward them to a new addressee).
In the broader context of the history of correspondence art, Mail Me Art (with its online companion website) is therefore an interesting project, but only shows one side of the multifaceted mail art phenomenon. A few lines of clarification in the introduction would have been sufficient to place the book in a more correct perspective (since Di Lieto's website promises a second book, he will have a chance to set the records straight!). All this said, and partially in defence of the author, most books on mail art are no more in print or are rather difficult to find, though Internet offers huge reference sites like the Artpool Archive or Ruud Janssen's TAM. I still find it amazing that more books are available in the English language about niche phenomenons like ATCs (Artist's Trading Cards), that developed in recent years from the mail art milieu, rather than about the history of mail art itself. It is a gap in the book market that begs to be filled, the sooner the better (but of course, this is another story).