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Postcards from the edge (of the Dana Gallery)

You name it, somebody collects it. What’s astounding about collectors of postal memorabilia like stamps and post cards is not merely the tendency to specialize, but the labyrinth of corridors and cul de sacs in which to specialize. There are Web pages devoted solely to post cards with pictures of corkscrews on them. Antique Norwegian Boy Scout post cards. Nineteenth Century Texas circus sideshow attraction post cards. You really can’t believe how many different kinds of post cards—and people who collect them—there are, until you go chumming on the Web with a key phrase like, well, post card.

Dedicated hobbyists prefer the Greek-derived term deltiology to describe the collection and study of post cards—a nice, lofty complement to their stamp-collecting neighbors, the philatelists. Like any good hobby, post card collecting also comes complete with minor controversies and points of contention. For example: postcard or post card? One site offers the following reconciliation: “If you favor the one-word postcard you are welcome to our site. Nevertheless, our club has chosen to use the original two-word term to honor the Golden Age of Post Cards, the era that ended with the First World War.”

The first plain post cards were printed in Austria in 1869, and in Great Britain the following year. In an era before telephones, they achieved great popularity as a means of sending messages without the formality of letter-writing. Picture post cards followed a few years later. In 1902, post card printers in England began dividing the back of the card into separate sections for message and address, freeing up the other side for larger images. For post card collectors, these minor innovations represent epochal events. The culture of post cards, collectors say, never fully recovered from the Great War, first as supplies of European cards began to dwindle during the fighting and later, during the postwar economic depression, when people found it difficult, or even painful, to return to the trivialities of the pre-war salad days.

Subject matter and printing advances aside, post cards did not evolve significantly until the mail art movement that began in the ’50s, when artists—particularly collage artists—often labored for hours over a single post card or envelope to turn it into a work of shareable self-expression. “Mail art,” writes Doris Bell in Contemporary Art Trends 1960-1980, “begun by Marcel Duchamp in 1916 when he sent his ideas by postcard, has grown into a worldwide network. The mailing of ephemeral material to friends, begun by Ray Johnson in the 1950s, mushroomed into a kind of dadaist pen-pal club that circumvents the gallery system and so is an alternative to accepted ideas of art.”

Gallery system or not, it’s more in the spirit of (almost) limitless self-expression that the Dana Gallery hosts an exhibit of around 300 post cards this month, mostly from local and statewide artists and photographers. Materials used by the artists vary from ink and paper to beeswax, glazed ceramic and wood, with a whole range of mixed-media assemblages in between. There’s even a piece built around reclaimed junk mail.

Very little of the exhibit would actually survive the mailing process a normal post card undergoes without sustaining significant damage, but unlike mail art, most of these works were never intended to be dropped in the mailbox. The only restrictions placed on participants were dimensional: All works had to be four inches by six inches or smaller, with up to four inches of relief allowable. That’s why there’s a miniature wooden stool, painted with bear and fish motifs, mounted on the wall not far from a block of wood bristling with safety matches and an interactive mixed-media card with a removable block inset.

“I like the functional aspect of this one,” says the gallery’s George Ybarra, indicating Victor artist Noellynn Pepos’ match-block, which would admittedly be a pretty nice addition to any room with a fireplace. “I like the idea of being able to use the matches and refill it with new ones.”

The idea for the exhibit, says Ybarra, was borrowed with enthusiastic permission from the Toucan Gallery in Billings. A call for submissions went out, and both Ybarra and gallery owner Dudley Dana say the response was overwhelming and the diversity of submissions amazing, with several multidimensional pieces in addition to the anticipated photographs and landscapes in oil, acrylic and watercolor.

The pieces in the exhibit range in price from $2 (you could scrape up that much just digging between your sofa cushions!) for a simple print to $600 for an encaustic work with beeswax and pigment. Many have been sold already (Dana and Ybarra add that the exhibit’s June First Friday opening was a resounding success, with many of the artists in attendance and chatting eagerly about their work). All are still on display, however, and seeing the different interpretations of post card all mounted close together is gratifying. A four-by-six-inch glazed ceramic piece with a depth of one and a half inches, by Jim Hewes, goes for $150. Kelsey R. McDonnell’s photo emulsion prints, with rich deep blues reminiscent of old cyanotypes, sell for $85. Ybarra likes McDonnell’s bangs-level image of eyes and forehead with hair that suggests a cutaway view of fibrous roots probing downward into soil.

“Some of those can get a little eerie,” says Ybarra, studying the opaque eyes, which look a little like the lifeless orbs of fish at a seafood market.

There’s even an interactive work that the viewer has to carefully remove from the wall to study: Francis Pearson’s contribution to the exhibit is a mixed-media piece depicting a house in Milltown, with a detachable block in the middle. It’s stamped and cancelled with a May 23 Milltown postmark, and bears a message from Pearson to himself. You wouldn’t have seen anything like that during the Golden Age of Post Cards.

The Postcard Show is up through July 9 at the Dana Gallery, 123 West Broadway.

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