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Is It Art or Is It Mail?

An installation at the Barrick compels museum curators and UNLV mailroom staff to take new notice of each other.

Arts and Culture  |  May 9, 2017  |  By D.K. Sole
Christmas Angel III by Kim Rugg

Kim Rugg, Christmas Angel III, reconfigured postage stamp, 2008.

Editor's Note: 

The Barrick Museum’s exhibit “Process” runs through May 13. Among the artists featured is Kim Rugg, whose work inspired a conversation between the museum’s Alisha Kerlin and D.K. Sole and mail services manager Hank Day and technician Phillippe Louis.

Most people who look at Kim Rugg’s framed envelopes at the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art see artworks. Phillippe Louis, a 10-year veteran of the university’s mailroom, sees a collaboration between infrastructures.

Louis came to UNLV after attending CSN and working in a warehouse, where the experience of receiving and caring for unexpected parcels fired him with a taste for the activity he saw in the mailroom. Employed here, he gets to witness “something new, every single day.”

He stills sees each piece of mail as an individual items, and is thrilled by a beautiful line of handwriting on an envelope.

Each letter is “a bond,” he says, “from one person to another.”

Standing before Rugg’s works in the Barrick, he brings a different kind of gaze to the art installation. Rugg' is an artist who comments on various forms of everyday messaging — maps, newspaper headlines — by slyly changing them, making them surprising. For her envelope series, she trims postage stamps into fragments so small that some are less than 1/16th of an inch wide. She remakes the imagery of each stamp by gluing it onto watercolor paper and forming an envelope.

Everything seems normal until you realize that the face in the official portrait is unnaturally stretched sideways, or that the words Buy! Buy! satirically emerge from a Christmas stamp.

gallery exhibitOnce she has finished altering the picture, Rugg will address the envelopes in pencil or with detachable stickers and send them through the post like any other letter. They arrive at their destinations with mailroom ink stamped across her intricate paper mosaics. The address is then removed and the work is considered complete.

People who view her work behind glass in the museum are confronted by a puzzle. They can see that the artist has worked on the stamp. But how did the ink get there?

This is the collaboration that Louis sees between Rugg in her infrastructure of studios and galleries and the system of mailrooms that give her destabilized works a necessary veneer of normalcy.

Is this art or mail? Both, Louis decides.

“Who’s to say her art’s not postage?” he says in the Barrick. And, he adds, why shouldn’t every piece of postage be treated like a potential work of art? Indicating the envelopes in their frames, he describes a future in which everybody will design their own stamps “to make mail more interesting, you know?”

He invites me and Barrick Museum director Alisha Kerlin to visit the mailroom where they meet longtime manager Hank Day.

He remembers when the mailroom staff all knew the surnames of every employee on campus and could easily sort the mail intended for professor Jones who taught philosophy from that for professor Jones in engineering.

We ask Day about the ink on Rugg’s work. How do these radically doctored stamps get through a mailroom when the monetary values on most of them are illegible? How do the workers know that they’re looking at the genuine article?

A modern stamp is not just glue and paper, explains Day. A bar code has been embedded in each one. The artist can trim the stamps as small as she likes, and the mailroom’s machinery will still be able to read it.

He leads them to one of the machines, a long white-grey shell around a black conveyor belt. Inserting letters in one end of the shell, he watches as they whisk down the belt and emerge, newly stamped, at the other.

Kerlin and I are fascinated. If Louis sees the romantic side of the mail, then Day is devoted to the duty of speed and accuracy. He likes the idea of envelopes finding their way efficiently to the right places. The staff asks him about the university’s requirement that all outgoing mail adhere to specific stipulations. Addresses must always be typed in capital letters with no punctuation. Why?.

The university is presenting itself to the world with mail, he says. Think about it. Every time someone receives mail from UNLV, it has the same clean look. The name of the university is never attached to untidy handwriting. UNLV mail always gets through.

“It’s like Kim Rugg,” I say. “She presents herself to the world through her envelopes, too.”

Louis points out that the artist is not only drawing attention to herself but also to the phenomenon of postage as a whole. “She’s making it so that we’re taking notice of it.”