MASS Gallery Sends Exquisite Corpses Through the Mail

The Austin artspace gets downright surreal with the USPS for its current exhibition

Exquisite corpses by: (l-r) Drew Liverman, Ryan Sponsler, Charles Hickey; Christine Garvey, Maddie Socha, Jo Yarrington; Jules Buck Jones, Elaine Andrews, Bethany Johnson

You ever send a corpse through the mail, citizen? How about an exquisite corpse?

An exquisite corpse is that old surrealist gambit of creativity, where a piece of paper is folded into thirds or fourths or some such, and each artist works on a single segment of that paper without looking at what's been drawn (or painted or collaged) before. Eventually, the page is completed, the folds are unfolded, and – mirabile dictu! – there's an entire yet oddly multipartite image that the world has never seen before.

MASS Gallery, a collectively run nonprofit gallery and project space since 2006, currently has an exhibition of exquisite corpses displayed online. The show is called "Pen Pals," and its particular corpses were created this summer, thanks to nobody's friend the coronavirus, by leveraging the power of the United States Postal Service.

"We were thinking about ways to engage with our community and create something while people were at home," says the gallery's Christine Garvey, the driving force behind this latest project. "Because we are, primarily, an artist-run center and a gallery space, and it wasn't safe to have people in the gallery and be putting on shows. So this was a way to keep making things and keep connecting with people."

Like, what, Zoom isn't enough?

Garvey shakes her head. "Everyone was pretty overwhelmed with all the computer time and just not wanting to look at another thing on a screen," she says, "and this project came about as a way to do something fun and different and tactile."

It's what they call mail art: creatively enhanced papers traveling via the various postal systems that service the entire planet. It's a thing that's been going on more or less formally for decades, having developed out of Ray Johnson's New York Correspondence School and the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, and it can involve all sorts of markmaking and manipulation. "It is an ephemeral, evanescent business that disdains description," as Edward M. Plunkett noted in The Art Journal back in 1977.

But this MASS Gallery "Pen Pals" project was exquisite corpses all the way down, corpses rendered by the likes of Garvey herself – and Jules Buck Jones, Drew Liverman, Brooke Gassiot, Andrea Mellard, Carlos Rosales-Silva, Jean Pagan, Taft Mashburn, Whitney Avra, Bethany Johnson, your current reporter, and many others.

"We had a sign-up list on our website," explains Garvey, "and it was a public pro­ject for anyone who wanted to sign up. We had 60 spots available, and whoever signed up went on the list. Then we sent the papers out with addresses on the back, coordinating things so the artists could just mail their sheet on to the next person, and then the next person, and then back to us. There were three artists for each sheet, and the people who participated were from all over the U.S. So the exquisite corpses got mailed out, went back and forth across the country, and eventually landed back at MASS."

Sixty spots, she says. And a large chunk of North America to cover between members of the creative community during a pandemic. And an increasingly beleaguered postal system. So, after the initial mailing in June, things went ... smoothly?

"Well, we spent the months of August and September waiting for them to arrive," says Garvey, "and we came out with a smaller collection than we planned. Some stuff got lost in the mail, which is a downside of doing projects like this, but we got a substantial number of them completed and were really happy with how the project turned out."

It turned out exquisitely, you might agree, perusing the plethora of responses. Many artists used ink, some used pencils (or a rainbow's worth of colored pencils). There were sections of corpses rendered with watercolors, with collage, with wax crayons, with combinations of those gambits. And all the sections more or less smoothly joined by each artist peeking (just enough, we assume) to know where to start their own expression on the shared sheet.

The exhibition of these three-artist oddities won't remain exclusively online: Considering the impetus for their birth, that would be contrary to the spirit of the project. "We're working on a zine from all the work that was made," Garvey says. The "Pen Pals" wrangler, who joined MASS officially after she and Bonnie Staley presented their "Rotten Little Fruits" show at the venue in the fall of 2019, seems especially pleased with this fact. "We're working on some proofs for a small Risograph zine, about 11 by 17, with all of the artists in there. It's nice to be making zines and doing things that, again, don't involve screens? That's been really refreshing for us. And when the zine's finished, it should be available through our website. We're hoping to have a way to order it online, and if we're unable to do that, we'll at least have it in our gallery shop – so people can peruse it and purchase it in person."

And even as that's being worked out, Garvey and her MASS colleagues are already thinking beyond the corpses. She couldn't be specific, but "there are things in the works that we're excited about."

As if sequential time – and our all-too-human involvement in it, our hopeful and creative stretches from one section to the next – were a sort of exquisite corpse itself, you think, reader?

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