By Turns Subversive and Stale, the Mail Art of "Blaster" is a Message from the Edge
Local avant-everyman "Blaster" Al Ackerman draws this woman as if she were emblazoned across the cover of a midcentury pulp magazine. She's buxom, her fair skin, hair, and dress popping off the red background. But since this is Ackerman--a writer fond of the out-of-pocket bizarre--the image is not purely eros. And it's not just because of what she's holding in her hand. In the background behind her stand a line of frogs, stately as servants. She has cat ears--like Josie and the Pussycats cat ears--and her smile is a ludicrously exaggerated gap-toothed grin, her two lone front teeth separated enough to pass a corn cob through sideways. Red lettering screams from a yellow banner across the top, Here, have a turd. In the bottom right corner of the image, "31¢" sits inscribed in a circle.
It's that little value tag that defines Ackerman's art--as a drawing for a sheet of mock postage stamps--for better and worse. For the past 30 years, Ackerman has been involved in mail art, and from the moment you walk into his retrospective show at the Chela Gallery in Canton, its sheer volume threatens to overwhelm you. Mostly unframed, it is tacked, taped, and otherwise affixed to the gallery's walls, hanging from strings running between poles, and bound in binders on a table. They number 400-plus, which is but a fragment of his total output. It ranges from stamps, envelopes, paintings, collages, zines, leaflets, articles, single-panel illustrations qua comics, a calendar, sketch notes, postcards, and miscellaneous other items that cascade around in the room like the visible spectrum run amok. As with staring at the collected volumes of Anaïs Nin's diaries, however, confronting even this sample of Ackerman's works leaves you wondering what seizes your interest--the quality of the work itself or the single-minded devotion that produced it.
Taken one at a time, the pieces read as impish and momentarily amusing distractions. Ackerman employs and appropriates as many visual styles as he does media. And his vocabulary reveals that he is very much a product of his time. Many of his drawings embrace a naughty sense of humor in the rough-hewn lines of 1960s underground comics. (For "Fur-Burger," he renders a woman--with the aforementioned gap-toothed smile--in pen and ink holding a slightly hirsute hamburger.) He uses bright, solid colors and the straight-ahead graphic design style of household product packaging. His collages gleefully juxtapose and layer images. Overall, the works are a splatter of ideas, media, and color that gleefully showcase Ackerman's witty intelligence, a conflagration of 20th-century pop imagery refracted through a mind that knows James Joyce from Joyce Brothers, Kafka from Cocoa Puffs.
But Ackerman's work is best--and perhaps only--understood in the the context of mail art. New York artist Ray Johnson, who spent some formative years at the happening Black Mountain College in the '40s, is generally considered the big bang of mail art; he amassed a rather large list of recipients, sent them collages and other peculiar objets d'art liberally infused with his beloved verbal and visual puns. People in the network started responding in kind, using aliases (a practice that continues today; one of Ackerman's many being "Blaster," by which he is now renown), and over time, the correspondences created a network, a limited audience for their art that existed outside the conventional gallery system, mirthfully defying the normal consumer-to-commodity relationship between art and audience.
All of which remained relatively underground until 1972, when San Francisco Chronicle art critic Thomas Albright published "New Art School: Correspondence Art" in Rolling Stone, where Ackerman first encountered the practice. Albright included a number of mail artists' names and addresses; Ackerman reached out to a few and was soon hooked.
Some of his 1970s and early 1980s contacts blossomed into long-term relationships, and a number of them donated their Ackerman pieces (and, in some instances, a few of their own) to this show: Italian music critic Vittore Baroni, mail artist "Eerie" Billy Haddock, performance artist Andre Stitt, poet John Bennett, artist and scholar John Held Jr., mail artist Darlene Altschul, Duplex Planet publisher David Greenberger, performance artist Ames Montgomery (aka INEX), and locals John Berndt and (City Paper contributor) Rupert Wondolowski. Their involvement is a testament to the widespread social network--and the archival impetus--of the mail-art enterprise.
But seeing such a large sample of mail art in a gallery installation, though entertaining, removes it from its defining context. No longer a surprise found in the mailbox, Ackerman's works when exhibited resemble that most traditional art entity--an oeuvre--and, as such, they're subject to the sort of critical scrutiny under which they don't weather. En masse, Ackerman's trickster humor feels one-dimensional--Why the gap-toothed smile? Why the litany of puns? Why the obvious jokes? He is obviously technically skilled, but the ideas behind the imagery aren't as clearly drawn.
Furthermore, the works themselves feel dated, and haven't aged as well as other underground art of its era, such as the homemade zines and flyers of Raymond Pettibon. That outmoded waft is partly due to mail art's insular existence; Ackerman comes across as still fighting the same sensibilities that Johnson reacted against in mail art's nascent stages. Even his '90s output on view reads like it's about the '60s and '70s, with its familiar and easily hit satirical targets: homogenous corporate culture, sexual and scatological taboos, the commodification of aesthetics, and generally rattling easily agitated "squares."
Those things are definitely worth rallying against, but other media--installation and performance art, for example--achieve the same end with a more resonant power. At worst, Ackerman's collected works feel like they bear only the joke-laden veneer of the "subversive." At best, they are as picturesque, nostalgic, and sentimental as a book of family photos--even if that family comes from one man's wonderfully and endlessly original mind, unfettered by commercial or popular acclaim.
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