Canceled Stamps

Artists Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna were pleasantly surprised last November when they got a call from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum of the Chicago Academy of Sciences asking if they’d be interested in doing an exhibit there. Thompson and Hernandez de Luna are known for the pseudostamps they’ve been making and mailing for about a decade: subversive little satires that look enough like the real thing to get delivered. The canceled stamps are sold as art, envelopes and all, commanding prices of up to $2,000. But they might not be an obvious choice for the nature museum, with its stuffed animals, butterfly garden, and kid-friendly, gee-whiz attitude. Even if you overlook their more notorious work, like the close-range study of a condom going into use or Jesus and Mary getting it on, it’s a stretch: their idea of a nature stamp is a decapitated “Mad Cow,” a “skeletonized” Chernobyl deer, or an exhortation to Eat Whale. But Thompson says the museum’s director of exhibits, Michael Sarna, paid them a visit November 21, looked at the work, and followed up with a signed contract dated December 19. The show, “Stamps of a Different Nature,” would feature both existing and new pieces and would open February 8; they would receive $2,000 to cover matting and framing and an honorarium.

The museum’s offer came on the heels of a vexing problem with postal authorities, who had never been happy with the artists. They’d once paid Thompson a visit but had pretty much left them alone. Then, last October, Hernandez de Luna did something that really got their attention. “This anthrax stuff was going down and everyone was saying America’s entered a new phase. It was like the 50s cold war stuff–everyone digging atomic bunkers–only now everyone was clearing out army surpluses for chemical suits. I reacted like artists are supposed to react. I made this sheet of stamps that are candy-flavored anthrax. A fruit-colored background with a skull and crossbones and the word ‘anthrax’ on it: lick grape, lick mango, lick apple.” He popped his stamps onto war department envelopes from the 1940s and dropped them into a mailbox. A few weeks later, while he and Thompson were at a mail-art show in Korea, his girlfriend told him he’d received an official notice (on a postcard) from the post office. He was under investigation. The pair cut their trip short to come home and consult with lawyers. Soon after that, Hernandez de Luna says, a government agent mentioned their case at a security conference hosted by the governor and attended by the press. An article about the anthrax stamp appeared in the Chicago Tribune November 19.

In the midst of that, the museum show seemed like a fine thing. But three weeks after they signed the contract, Thompson and Hernandez de Luna got another call from Sarna: it seems their reputation was an issue after all. “Our trustees are actually, I think, up in arms over this issue,” Sarna told Thompson’s answering machine. “I have a feeling it does not look good this is going to happen because of the anthrax.” He said the museum would try to reimburse them for materials. The two aren’t fussing about artistic freedom–“You can’t whine about that,” Hernandez de Luna says–but they want the rest of the money. So far they’ve received $670. “We want them to honor the contract. Because art is a business, quite an ugly business at times.” Adds Thompson: “That contract covered those guys four ways till Tuesday. We weren’t covered at all and we’re the ones that got shafted. It’s more the principle than the money.”

Museum president and CEO Joe Shacter says he first heard about the anthrax flap when one of the trustees brought up the Tribune story at a meeting. When Sarna then asked Hernandez de Luna about it, the artist owned up–but Shacter was furious that he hadn’t disclosed it earlier. “We are generally in the practice of supporting artistic expression…but…in light of the situation in our country we felt it would be inappropriate to mount that show,” Shacter says. “This gentleman exercised extremely poor judgment.”

Take Your Poems and Scram!

Got a note from poet Leonard (“the Count”) de Montbrun wondering if the Ice Water Brigade had struck again when the weekly poetry-reading event Word Gourmet lost its home at the Gourmand coffeehouse on South Dearborn. The Ice Water Brigade, says his lordship, is made up of those cheapskate poetry-night regulars who go to events at bars and coffee shops and order nothing but ice water. Nina Corwin, who hosted Word Gourmet every Friday for two and a half years, doesn’t think her crowd was stingy. But, she says, Gourmand changed ownership last fall, and the new owners, who didn’t yet have a liquor license, “weren’t able to see the contribution the readings made–to their bottom line and to their relationship with the community.” She adds, “I think the fact that we passed the hat might have made them nervous,” afraid it would chase away customers who weren’t there for the poetry. “In general, relationships between poetry hosts and their venues deteriorate either because the bar owner is not making enough money or because they’re uncomfortable with the language.” Word Gourmet had a boffo turnout for its last performance, December 21. The cafe’s manager, Jennifer Agan, says the owners want poetry back, “just not on a Friday or Saturday night.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.