Received Dissent: An American Mail Art Project

The Graves Gallery, Sheffield, 2018


 3/4/18 – 28/7/18

 Sheffield, UK

7 / 10

My first reaction to this small but comprehensive exhibition was that I’d never heard of this movement before. It was a rebellious and secretive, yet liberating exploration of collaborative art in 1960s America.

The Graves Gallery is on to something really special with this exhibition, and I am going to offer up my interpretations, opinions, and analyses on the show. If you’d like to find out more about the rest of the collection at the Graves Gallery, follow the link to my blog post which discusses the gallery’s permanent collection.

Keep reading to find out more about a rare exhibition at one of Sheffield’s small galleries.

“This artwork, like so many others in the exhibition, is a genuine insight into the emotions of a period”

The exhibition explores an artistic collaboration called The SMS (Shit Must Stop) Portfolio. A group of American artists mailed out their artworks in six collaborative portfolios in 1968, as a way to bypass the officiality of the gallery system. The group consisted of surrealist such as Man Ray, and a varied selection from world famous to unknown artists. Some of the exhibition’s big names include Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein, Marcel Duchamp and Yoko Ono. The exhibition follows through two rooms, with a portfolio of work on each wall.

The first wall shows SMS Portfolio 1, February 1968. One of my favourite works from this collection is Nancy Reitkopf’s ‘Luggage Labels’. It shows a framed selection of six peel-off lithograph prints, in a nostalgic and colourful style. This artwork, like so many others in the exhibition, is a genuine insight into the emotions of the period.

The two most significant labels are in the centre. One is a Hindenburg Nazi blimp, and the other shows a bomber plane heading for the sunset over a Japanese village – the image is labelled Hiroshima. These labels show the still raw emotions from the war that ended only 23 years earlier, combined with an aesthetic nostalgia to create an intriguing and socially insightful artwork.

Man Ray’s contribution is found in SMS Portfolio 3, June 1968. The work is a lithograph entitled ‘The Father of Mona Lisa’. The work is a copied print of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portraits, with a cigar superimposed in his mouth. The contrast between the style and work of the Renaissance master, and the modern juxtaposition of the cigar is a comical hint towards how art has evolved and developed over time.

“Burning a bowtie is a bit like burning a flag – it’s symbolic”

The artworks in the portfolios are epitomised by Lil Pickard’s addition to SMS Portfolio 4, August 1968, entitled ‘Burned Bowtie’. It is exactly what the title suggests. In more contemporary artworks, this would be left open for objective, mystical interpretation but things were a little more straight forward in the sixties. Burning a bowtie is a bit like burning a flag – it’s symbolic. And in this case, it symbolises the changed social attitudes towards class and social order that defined the “swinging sixties”.

To me, the main point of An American Mail Art Project is to explore the contextual attitudes, diversions, and methods of American artists in the sixties. The exhibition doesn’t call upon this enough, and it’s easy to walk through and miss the point. It’s a rare observation, to see how artists come together and work outside the boundaries of galleries and institutions. An artwork that embodies this freedom is ‘Friends’ by Betty Dodson, in SMS Portfolio 6, December 1968. It is a lithograph laminated with red acetate. To me, this shows first-hand the liberation of sexuality in the 1960s. The idealised, muscular style of the figures is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s sketches. It is this contrast between contrived Renaissance style and sexual exploration between “friends”, that shows the development of art alongside society.

“It opens a window into the uncensored minds of American artists in the 1960s…”

The Graves Gallery has touched upon a very special period in art history with this exhibition. It opens a window into the uncensored minds of American artists in the 1960s and acts as important resource for understanding social attitudes at the time. I would say that the gallery has not given enough credit to this unique aspect of the exhibition, and instead have made it a little too difficult and long winded to understand. Even the title, ‘Received Dissent’ is off-putting; I admit, I don’t really know what this means or why it’s relevant.

Inside the exhibition, I dare say that a lot of visitors have taken one look at the information-lacking walls, walked through the disjointed and apparently random collection, and been very underwhelmed. Feeling this way after an exhibition is never the fault of the visitor! It is the fault of the gallery for presuming that everybody has in-depth knowledge about 20th century American art and how we should look at it. There are no chairs to sit in and ponder what you’re looking at, and the dogeared sheets of paper with irrelevant information really don’t help people to understand what they’re seeing. In my opinion, every portfolio wall needs more information about the individual artworks, and how they act as expressions, insights, or commentaries in their own right. Despite being an underrated and important exhibition, I think the Graves Gallery has failed, as many galleries do, in making it “accessible”. I enjoyed the layout of the rooms, and the journey through each portfolio as a journey around the room itself.

Overall it is a unqiue and excitng exhibition, and really worth seeing! I do recommend a visit if you’re in Sheffield, and hopefully I have helped to explain the bits that the gallery haven’t made clear. As always, art is more fun when you know what you’re looking at!

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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