For most museum exhibitions, it is taboo to touch any work of art. The works on display are almost always made by an artist out of reach of the visitor. “The Great Exchange” at the Dishman Art Museum crushes both of those museum norms in this exhibition of mail art.
“The show is called ‘The Great Exchange’ to encourage others to connect with each other and their friends, even the artists if they want to — all of their addresses are available on their title cards,” curator Alyssabeth Guerra said. “Many of the visitors have been writing to the artists. You don’t have to have a ton of talent to make mail art — it just has to be personal and thoughtful.”
The art form has evolved from just illustrations on envelopes and the exhibition is a survey of living artists who are actively corresponding using the post and pushing the envelope on what can be considered mail art.
“I wanted to get a wide range of works that are considered mail art to represent that mail art can be whatever you want it to be, you can be as imaginative as you want with it,” Guerra said. “You can make something really small or send something crazy like a plastic pigeon. You don’t have to use regular envelopes — you can make your own with mechanisms and different pockets. I wanted people to experience the full spectrum of older works and living mail artists.”
This is Guerra’s first show to curate after earning her bachelor of arts in general studies with an emphasis in studio art, art history and history from Texas Tech University in 2014. She works as assistant to the director at the Dishman, and for her debut show wanted to do something for the community and include her love for postal correspondence.
“Mail art is something I have been doing for seven years but also have an interest in as an art historian,” she said. “The students at Lamar University were on of my biggest motivations — when I was a student, I felt like I would really dried out from all the studio classes while the mail art was invigorating.
“I think it was so refreshing because the focus of that mail art is the personal conversation you are having with your friend and it is energizing and therapeutic to combine the conversation and the artwork. You can even incorporate the conversation in the art — it’s really fun.”
One of the displays, “The World’s Smallest Postal Service” by Lea Redmond, includes a miniature writing desk equipped with letters and envelopes for the like of Lilliputions. Another display by Margaret Haas includes samples of commercial stationary works and a custom Dishman Art Museum stamp.
The show also includes a documentary which traces some of the history of mail art from Ray Johnson in the ’50s to artists currently working with mail art. Older artists include John Held Jr. who is an art historian who has been making mail art since 1976 and E.F. Higgins who has been making his own postage stamps since the mid-seventies.
“For the theme of the show, I wanted it to be an exchange because it is interactive,” Guerra said. “ I wanted to get a wide range of works that are considered mail art to represent that mail art can be whatever you want it to be, you can be as imaginative as you want with it. You can make something really small or send something crazy like a plastic pigeon. You don’t have to use regular envelopes — you can make your own with mechanisms and different pockets. I wanted people to experience the full spectrum of older works and living mail artists.”
The exhibition also includes a table with colored pencils, pens and postcards to encourage visitors to make their own mail art and drop it in the postbox for the museum to mail and begin their own exchange with the art form.
“It’s a non-precious art form,” Guerra said. “The worth of the work isn’t in the material necessarily or who made it — it is worth on the personal level. It has worth because your friend made it for you and it is precious because it was especially made for you.”
“The Great Exchange” is on view through November 20. The Dishman Art Museum is located at 1030 E. Lavaca in Beaumont.
Story by Caitlin Duerler, ISSUE contributor