I have been involved in the international network of mail art, as a practising author and chronicler, for over three decades, so I have the habit of checking periodically the Internet to see if any new book on the subject has appeared. I had Di Lieto’s Mail Me Art in pre-order long before the publication date, and I had visited the author’s website, the Little Chimp Society, so I knew beforehand more or less what to expect. The book is not disappointing at all in its visual contents, since it permits to see what a specific group of authors - illustrators and designers, mostly young and at the start of their career - is able to devise when confronted with the request to regard the surface of an envelope or package as an empty page, and then drop their completed artwork into a mailbox. A few items designed by children or by more traditionally oriented illustrators are mixed here with a colourful variety of images drawing inspiration from the language of comics, from the bold world of Pop Surrealism, the doodles and tags of street art, the cute characters of toy art. With only an handful of established “big names” in sight, these are by no means “the world’s best illustrators and designers”, as the cover promises, yet the selection is varied and exuberant. It is particularly interesting and amusing to see how each artist has solved the challenge to incorporate the postage stamps, the address and other postal insignia into their piece.
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).