Artistamp

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The term artistamp (a portmanteau of the words ‘artist’ and ‘stamp’) or artist’s stamp refers to a postage stamp-like art form used to depict or commemorate any subject its creator chooses. Artistamps are a form of ‘Cinderella stamp’ (unofficial stamps, not valid for postage), but they differ from forgeries or bogus Illegal stamps in that typically the creator has no intent to defraud postal authorities or stamp collectors.

Artistamp creators often include their work on legitimate mail, alongside valid postage stamps, in order to decorate the envelope with their art. In many countries this practice is legal, provided the artistamp isn’t passed-off as or likely to be mistaken for a genuine postage stamp. When so combined (and sometimes, less strictly speaking, even when not so) the artistamp may be considered part of the ‘mail art’ genre (a populist artistic movement centered around sending small scale works through the postal service, initially developed out of the Fluxus movement in the 1950s and 60s).

Irony, satire, humor, eroticism and subversion of governmental authority are frequent characteristics of artistamps. Artists may leverage the expectation of official endorsement that necessarily inheres in governmentally-issued postage for the purpose of shocking or subverting viewers’ expectations, with such actions typically representing a specific political and artistic motive. Other practitioners are content to depict more homey subjects like kittens and family members. Some artists use the form to create fantasy stamps for their own postal administrations or countries.

While the method of production is entirely the choice of the artist, creators who exclusively or primarily use rubber stamps are occasionally held in contempt by members of the artistamp community, some of whom refer to such producers as ‘bunny-stampers.’ The personal computer, personal printer and color photocopier have served to democratize the means of production of artistamps. It’s no coincidence that the early ’80s explosion in artistamp creation paralleled the development and widespread use of color photocopiers, and that a similar surge followed the ubiquity of personal computers and inexpensive color printers. Still, the lack of workable, widely available, cheap and accessible perforators have limited the number of artists who can create convincing simulacra of traditional perforated stamps. Makers of artistamps sometimes apply cancellations to the stamps when affixing them to covers; first day of issue covers for artistamps also exist.

Artists working in the stamp art medium often employ fixed-line perforators as part of the creation process. Most functional and sought-after of these machines are cast-iron, pedal-operated devices manufactured beginning in the 1880s by bindery equipment makers like F.P Rosback Co. and Latham Machinery Co. Other methods for perforating paper to resemble stamp sheets have generally proven unsatisfactory. Such alternative methods used include using sewing machines, sewing pounces, leather punches, modified veterinary needles, and speciality scissors. Some owners of pedal-operated or motorized perforators sell pre-perforated paper and offer perforating services for a fee.

The rise of the Internet has seen the development of the concept of the so-called ‘cyberstamp,’ a digital-only stamp-like image designed primarily to be viewed online and often sent with email. Cyberstamps also allow the use of animated imagery. Whether a digital image, however, can be considered a ‘stamp’ at all is a matter of dispute.

The first artist to produce an ‘artist’s stamp’ is open to interpretation. Fine artists were certainly commissioned to create ‘poster stamps’ (advertising posters in collectible stamp form) from the late 1800s, but none appear to have worked with the format outside the commercial or advertising context. In 1919, Dadaist Raoul Hausmann affixed a self-portrait postage stamp to a postcard, but given that Dada was determinedly anti-art (at least in theory), calling this an ‘artist’s stamp’ seems almost counterintuitive.

German artist Karl Schwesig, while a political prisoner during World War II, drew a series of pseudo-stamps on the blank, perforated margins of postage stamp sheets, using coloured inks. Artistamp collector and multimedia artist Jas Felter asserts that this 1941 series, which illustrated life in a concentration camp, is typically accepted as the first true set of artist’s stamps. Robert Watts, a member of the Fluxus group (an offshoot of Neo-Dada), became the first artist to create a full sheet of [faux] postage stamps within a fine art context when he produced a perforated block of 15 stamps combining popular and erotic imagery in 1961.

Canadian multimedia artist and philatelist (scholar of stamps) T Michael Bidner, who made his life’s work the cataloguing of all then-known artist’s stamps, coined the word ‘artistamp’ in 1982. It quickly became the term of choice amongst mail artists. Artist Clifford Harper published a series of designs for anarchist postage stamps in 1988, featuring portraits of Shelley, Emma Goldman, Oscar Wilde, Emiliano Zapata, and Herbert Read. Despite the exhibitions, history, number of artists and global sweep of the artistamp movement, the medium had long been ignored by major institutions and derided by the arts establishment: before his death in 1989, Bidner attempted to donate his definitive collection to several major Canadian institutions but was turned down by all.

The collection eventually went to Artpool, an art research center in Budapest which organized ‘World Art Post,’ the first big scale artistamp exhibition in Central Europe in 1982, and in 1987 the first arstistamp exhibition to be held in a renowned museum. Upon his death, Bidner’s friend Rosemary Gahlinger-Beaune, undertook Bidner’s vision and began to catalogue, using philatelic standards, artistamps from over 200 artists from 29 countries, documenting more than 10,0000 artistamp images. In 1999, Gahlinger-Beaune and Bianchini released a CD entitled ‘The World of Artistamps,’ the most comprehensive database of artistamps of the time.

Jas Felter curated an exhibition called ‘Artists’ Stamps and Stamp Images’ at Simon Fraser Gallery, Simon Fraser University, Canada, in 1974: the first exhibition to acknowledge the stamp as an artistic medium. This collection, which toured Europe and America for the next ten years, led to an explosion in the number of artists using stamps as an artistic format. Photographer and multimedia artist Ginny Lloyd started her ‘Gina Lotta Post’ series in 1979 and by 1982 had produced some of the first computer-generated imagery used in artists stamps. On a visit to Artpool in 1982, she collaborated with Hungarian Fluxus artist György Galántai on artistamp issues. In 1984, Lloyd co-organized an Art in Space event in San Francisco at which a rocket containing artistamps on a microchip was launched. In 1986, the artist received a Visual Studies Workshop artist-in-residence funded in part by the US National Endowment for the Arts. Her project for the residency culminated with ‘Gina Lotta Post,’ a series of artistamps bound into a book and includes a set of postcards. A second book ‘Make Your Own Stamps Sheet,’ is a project that originated from the same residency, becoming available in 2011.

In 2005, The exhibition ‘Axis of Evil’ opened at The Nexus Gallery, Philadelphia in March, 2005, and later traveled to Chicago and Green Bay, Wisconsin. Curated by Chicago-based artist Michael Hernandez de Luna, the exhibit featured 127 works by 47 stamp artists from 11 countries. It originated with the publication of the book ‘Axis of Evil: Perforated Praeter Naturam,’ published by Qualiatica Press. It was later discovered that US Secret Service agents attended the opening exhibition. According to Carol Ann Brown, director of the gallery, the agents were most interested in the work entitled ‘Patriot Act’ by Chicago-based artist Al Brandtner. The work depicts a revolver pointed at the head of then President George W. Bush. Secret Service spokesman Tom Mazur stated, ‘We need to ensure… that this is nothing more than artwork with a political statement.’

In 2007, the New Museum Weserburg in Bermen, Germany, assembled more than 300 works to present a global ensemble of stamp art. A portion of the exhibition description reads: ‘The fact that the artist’s stamp sets its own stamp on an (art) letter is one of the special features of this form of expression. A further facet of this small-format art is its challenging the mail monopoly by laying claim to the perforated and gummed miniature works of art. The stamps the artist’s create are not meant to swindle the postal service, but to call into question the right to design things. The focus in the exhibition will therefore be the artist’s stamp as an expression of independence and self-determination. Thus the title, Lick me!, is not only an invitation to ‘remain glued’ to this exhibition, rather it also exemplifies the stance of a self-confident genre.’

The Gina Lotta Post Artistamp Museum, curated by Ginny Lloyd, opened to the public in 2010. Currently located in Jupiter, Florida, the museum collection began in the late 70’s and exhibits over 1,200 works by more than 175 international artistamp creators. Selections from the museum can be seen online.

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