Mark Raymond Collins, whose prolific output covers nearly every foot of available space on the walls at The Arts Fund through Friday, September 7, can’t quite accept the standard descriptive term “works” when it comes to describing the thousands of colorful and witty pieces of mail he has sent to friends over the past decade. “I’ve never thought of what I do as work,” he said with a laugh as he answered questions about his practice at a recent artist’s talk. The idea for the show, the full title of which is postMARKed: Selections from a Vast Amount of Mail, came from Hugh Margerum, the artist and curator to whom the bulk of Collins’s extraordinary oeuvre has been addressed.
After carefully saving the hundreds of unique handmade cards and letters from Collins that have arrived in his mailbox daily for years, Margerum felt it was time to let the public know what was happening through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) right here in Montecito and Santa Barbara. Almost every day, either at breakfast time or in the early evening, Collins sits at his kitchen table and makes something new. Whether it’s a fanciful abstract drawing on a piece of tracing paper — his current favorite medium — or a small collage on a 5″ x 7″ piece of light foam board, each creation bears the evidence of a questing mind equally at home with nuances of typography, different shades of ink, and scatological jokes, many of them referencing current events.
The pieces also all bear at least one canceled stamp. Although, as is evident from the glorious range of the materials on view, Collins never does exactly the same thing twice, everything that he makes must nevertheless submit to a single, unalterable constraint: It has to go through the mail. Without exception, his pieces are only truly complete when they show up in someone’s mailbox courtesy of the good people at USPS. Although Margerum’s Collins collection dominates the show by its size, there’s room in this private postal network for other artists. Along with Margerum, Michael Kienzle and the late Keith Puccinelli were also moved by receiving something from Collins to respond with mail art of their own, and as a result, all three are also represented here, as creators as well as recipients.
All of the objects are for sale for the same low price of $20, and they have been selling at a brisk pace. As a result of the sheer quantity of different things on view, it’s hard to make firm generalizations about the project as a whole, other than that it is clearly a lot of fun, not only for those involved, but for anyone who visits The Arts Fund or picks up the show’s beautifully crafted catalog, which is available online at blurb.com/b/8843890-postmarked. Some of it is elegant, some of it is sophomoric, and some of it somehow manages to be both. The sensibility hovers around that of the great underground comix artists who used shock tactics to express real emotion, but it never alights in any one place long enough to weigh anchor, choosing instead to float freely in a warm bath of friendship.
Perhaps the most relevant context is that provided by the mail itself and the simple act of retrieving one’s daily postal load, whether alone or in company. As anyone familiar with Puccinelli’s art will know and relish, there’s a world of pleasure in easy reach of those willing to choose radical honesty through humorous self-deprecation. There’s also plenty of room for wordplay and parody. Wooden Scrabble tiles spell out “WOODIE” on a card sent to Kienzle, while Margerum once received a glittering handmade tourist postcard exclaiming “Vulva, Las Vegas!” Try texting that with an emoji.
postMARKed shows through Friday, September 7, at The Arts Fund (205-C Santa Barbara St.). Call (805) 965-7321 or see artsfundsb.org.