The art’s in the mail: Halsey Institute exhibition showcases correspondence art

The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, located in Charleston, S.C., received a South Carolina Arts Commission Arts Education Project grant to help support this exhibition.

“You’ve got mail” has different meanings, depending upon one’s age and current communications style.  The Halsey Institute’s exhibition, Correspondence Art: Words, Objects, and Images by Ray Johnson, Richard C., and Bob Ray, will appeal to those nostalgic for a time when keeping in touch could mean waiting a day or more for letter delivery, while also introducing the concept of creating and mailing art to young people accustomed to reaching their friends instantly via text.

Also known as postal art and mail art, correspondence art is a populist artistic movement centered on sending small-scale works through the postal service. It initially grew out of the Fluxus movement in the 1950s and 1960s and has since developed into a global movement that continues to present day.

“This exhibition brings together three of the most prolific mail artists in the history of the genre,” said Halsey Director and Chief Curator Mark Sloan. “There have been many well-known artists who have dabbled in mail art — On Kawara, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, etc. — but very little scholarly attention has been given to the genre.”

Halsey Institute Education Coordinator Maya McGauley

Halsey Institute Education Coordinator Maya McGauley sorts through some of the mail art received

Conceptual artist Ray Johnson (1927–1995) was a mail art pioneer, using a variety of graphic and textual elements to correspond with artists, writers, and thinkers, including Richard C. and Bob Ray. Vintage mail art between these three artists forms the historical backdrop for the exhibition, with the remaining works consisting of words, objects and images sent to Sloan by Richard C. and Bob Ray in the past year. A number of the works are collaborations between these two artists.

Sloan believes the exhibition will rekindle the sense of wonder of sending and receiving postal mail. “The concept of pen pals seems so old-fashioned for most people under 50. People over 50 will recall those wistful days when people actually sent hand-written thank you notes and postcards from vacation destinations, as opposed to texts and Facebook posts. People under 50 may discover that the U.S. Post Office is a pretty good deal. Look at what can be legitimately sent through the mail!”

The exhibition includes an education component designed to foster new connections between students at six Charleston-area schools: Memminger School of Global Studies, downtown Charleston; Northside Elementary School, Walterboro; C. E. Williams Middle School, suburban Charleston; Rollings Middle School of the Arts, Summerville; Lincoln Middle/High School, McClellanville; and Academic Magnet High School, North Charleston. Artist Bob Ray will be in residence from Jan. 22 through Feb. 11, working with students on correspondence art projects that combine elements of visual arts, English language arts, and social studies, according to Lori Kornegay, curator of art and public engagement. “Students will join Bob in the gallery to learn how he makes his art and how it fits into art history, and then our education coordinator, Maya McGauley, will visit each school to work with the students in class. We’re pairing the two elementary schools, the two middle schools and the two high schools. Students will research their community, school or family, select a topic to write about and create their own works of art that will then be mailed to students at their partner school. We expect that each student will create between two and five pieces of correspondence art, and we’ll encourage them to also mail their art to Bob Ray and to South Carolina legislators.”

The project will culminate with an exhibition comprised of student-created correspondence art to be held at the Charleston County Public Library in May. Each teacher will be provided with a large self-addressed stamped envelope in which to mail all of the correspondence art they have received to the Halsey Institute.

“We hope this project will be the beginning of a continuing relationship between these schools, which were chosen with geographic diversity in mind, and we hope to inspire the students to continue sending each other correspondence art,” said Kornegay. “It will no doubt spark amazing connections and create, at least for some, lifelong pen pals! For some students, it may be their first time on a college campus, so visiting (the Halsey) could be a step toward imagining that experience as a part of their future. We believe the program will also be an excellent opportunity to introduce students, their parents and the school’s administration and faculty to the excellent educational resources available to them here at the Halsey.”

Correspondence Art: Words, Objects, and Images by Ray Johnson, Richard C., and Bob Ray opens Jan. 22 and runs through March 5. To find out more about the artists, the exhibition and related programs (including correspondence art projects for the public) visit the Halsey Institute’s website.

This residency and exhibition are funded in part by the South Carolina Arts Commission, which receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts.