Anatomy of an Art Stunt

What does it take to get noticed?

By Fred Camper

It arrived in my mail about a month ago with the usual pile of press releases, gallery announcements, and “please see my show” importunings: an actual work of art, in pen and pencil on a four-by-six card, by a little-known local artist named William Staples. Titled Slim Mixture, it was signed and dated and had a goofy-looking snapshot of the artist pasted on the back. Accompanying it was a photocopied note soliciting a donation to the “Help William Staples Paint Full-Time Fund…of either $1.00, $5.00, or $10.00 and more.” The contribution was requested “if you like this, or even if you don’t, but like the fact that people make art.” It also said I could keep “the original art work” even if I didn’t make a donation.

I looked at the work, some crude cartoonish figures scrawled on a mostly blank background, and wondered why this artist thought he was special enough to ask people to send him money. In a possible attempt at irony, there were red circles containing marks like “B+” and “D-” next to the figures, suggesting grades; looking again at the rather limp composition, I decided I would have awarded him the latter.

When I spoke with Staples on the phone, though, I realized I’d misunderstood his intent. I was one of only 16 recipients of his mailing–I’d assumed there’d been more–and he had no illusions that he’d get much money from it. Instead he called it a “kind of conceptual art piece, like a gallery through the mail,” and said he hopes to someday exhibit the original cards and responses together. But he’s also making a bid for attention. “It will help people put a name to me. Instead of me being just this resume and a sheet of slides that they hold up to a fluorescent light to see if it catches their eye, they’ll say, ‘Isn’t he that jerk that sent me that card?'”

So far the only response that Staples has received other than mine is a form letter from the Museum of Contemporary Art. But most of the other recipients do remember his mailing, and the reviews are mixed. New Art Examiner editor Kathryn Hixson commented that it had “been done before.” Chicago Cultural Center curator Lanny Silverman found it an “inventive approach” but responded negatively to the feeling of “being marketed.” David Leonardis of the David Leonardis Gallery admired Staples’s “self-promotion” but put it in the context of “being solicited daily by artists, telephone companies, and homeless persons.” He did allow that the drawing was “interesting enough” to catch his attention for a minute–before he threw it out. Jason Zadak, owner of the Better Weimaraner Gallery and the only recipient I spoke with who was younger than the 31-year-old artist, sounded more sympathetic: “I like that invasive kind of art.” But he thought the work itself looked like Staples “may have been toasted on a joint and got goofy with his pen and crayon” and described Staples’s picture on the back as “a really funny mug shot” in which “he does look pretty stoned.” But he won’t be contributing: “I’ve got my own fund, the ‘Help Jason Zadak Exhibit Art Full-Time Fund.'”

The owners of two more conceptually oriented galleries, both also partial to humor, found the theoretical dimensions behind Staples’s mailing a bit wanting. Ned Schwartz of Beret International says he likes the attitude of “seeing that there’s something stagnant with the current institutions and wanting to make some kind of commentary about it. But it takes a lot of thinking and trial and error to come up with a really profound and poetic statement about the current art world. This had the quality of the people who sit on the streets and make poetry and art and try to sell it.” Joel Leib of Ten in One Gallery agrees: “I’d categorize it as an art stunt, but it seemed a little more of the self-taught than the conceptual variety.”

Staples’s description of the six years since he got his BFA from the School of the Art Institute helped me understand the reasons behind his mailing. Around the time of his graduation, the owner of a major Chicago gallery expressed admiration for his work–but then didn’t return his phone calls. In a routine familiar to many artists, he cobbled together a living working at such jobs as carriage driver, telemarketer, and manager of a dog-walking service, while painting in his spare time. Currently a picture framer in Wilmette, Staples’s long commute from the city leaves him only a few hours each evening to paint. Despite having another part-time job, sometimes he can’t even afford gesso. The mailing idea came about partially because of his aversion to self-promotion. “I never liked sending out slides. I started feeling like a businessman–it was no fun. I thought that, since I like making art, why can’t the process of pursuing galleries be fun too?” He admits that the cards he sent out were “pretty cheesy”; made in an average of ten minutes, he remembers liking some but doing others just to fill the space. Having learned about the arbitrariness of art prices by selling a few of his pieces for very little and two paintings for “a lot,” he thought it would be interesting to force people who wanted to send money to have to decide, “‘Do I like this card a dollar much or five dollars much or ten dollars much?'”

All this made me a bit more sympathetic, but Staples’s story could still have been that of any artist who feels misunderstood. Then I visited his studio, where, in a helpful reminder against the dangers of critical snap judgments, his larger paintings proved quite engaging. Of the four now on view in an exhibit at the Contemporary Art Workshop, which will host an opening this Saturday from 6 to 8, Arms Are for Hugging–Fight for World Peace is the largest, placing a crudely outlined cartoonish bunny amid a splotchy red field. There’s something appealing if not wholly original about this weird armless critter peering out from the undulating mass of conventionally abstract red paint. Staples got the title from a bumper sticker, while the bunny reflects a lifetime of animal loving, beginning with a childhood interest in live gerbils and furry toy mice. There are also two untitled, oddly poetic white pictures, each with eight or ten fuzzy gray blobs floating throughout. The blobs are actually more animal sketches, done in graphite but heavily smeared with a layer of white paint. The blurriness almost obscures their cartoonishness, giving one the sense of looking through a distorting–and sheltering–window at an incomprehensible herd. For Staples, they are “very peaceful. While the outside world is a daily barrage of so much information, they make me feel calm.”

When I asked if he was disappointed by the lack of response to his mailings, Staples replied, “No, I’m very happy. I got you.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Staples “art”work.