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Have Art, Will Travel

The catalog for "Postcards on the Edge," a show on display at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale, describes it as "a multifaceted progressive traveling exhibition examining a historic means of casual communication facing the possibility of future extinction in this electronic age." That's artspeak for "This is a show about postcards."

Part of the exhibit is "Postmarks From the Past," displays of classic postcards collected and cataloged by the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. Included are steel post office boxes and a post office window from the old Pioneer House (now the Stranahan House) in the '40s and a set of '20s mailboxes from the Vernon Apartments in Fort Lauderdale. These items may be of historical interest, but they're only marginally related to the rest of the show.

"Postcards For the Millennium Project" encourages visitors to create their own postcards and address them to themselves. They'll be mailed in the year 2000 (although, as one postcard points out, the new millennium technically doesn't begin until 2001). A couple of the drawings are beautifully executed, especially considering how quickly they must have been done, but otherwise there isn't much visual thinking evident, despite our image-intensive popular culture.

Mostly, the writing reads like a halfhearted cross between graffiti and greeting-card platitudes, with the occasional tart witticism thrown in: "Art can't hurt anyone," and "We're all going to die. Have a nice day," for instance. It probably doesn't help that the raw materials provided -- a silver-ink marker and large, glossy-black postcards -- aren't especially conducive to creativity, or that ArtServe has placed the project on a tiny table off to the side, where people may feel rushed to throw something together before the next patron comes along.

But these sideshows are more about artifacts than art. The heart of "Postcards on the Edge" is the invitational exhibition of more than 70 individual pieces, some clustered in related groupings, by 35 artists who responded to the call to create works inspired by postcards and the connotations associated with them. A giddily diverse range of media are represented, from oils, acrylics, and watercolors to sculpture, ceramics, glassware, photography, and installations.

For many of these artists, there's one form suitable for exploring the notion of postcards: the mixed-media collage. It's as if the artists got together and agreed that the only way to contend with the vast tangle of postcard associations is to cram them into a collage, one of the most enduring contributions of modernism. (It's a possibly relevant footnote that postcards, which originated in the 1840s, didn't really catch on until the latter half of the 19th Century, just as modern art was beginning to take hold.)

The collagists and mixed-media artists get the most mileage out of the exhibition's theme. Certain postcard-related items emerge from our collective cultural consciousness to appear in image after image: postage stamps, postmarks, fragments of handwritten notes, travel souvenirs, maps, vacation snapshots.

These familiar objects are pressed into service to convey the idea of postcards as remnants of excursions to foreign places. How often do we send postcards from home, rather than from the places we visit? But a majority of these South Florida artists, like their fellow residents, are transplants from elsewhere, so their work reflects that strange sense of dislocation we feel from living in a place that is both home to us and a travel destination for others.

Margarita Jourgensen's Been There, Done That is a 36-by-48-inch, board-mounted piece that juxtaposes postage stamps, Coke bottle caps, foreign coins, keys, blocks of wood, a crucifix, a butterfly brooch, small boxed photos of old cars, and such handwritten notations as "Love is the beauty in everyday things." Along the right edge of the piece is an enigmatic strip of stamp-size images of American Presidents.

Not surprisingly, two pieces are titled Wish You Were Here. Emalee Andre's 22-by-28-inch collage is a pleasingly balanced composition of stamps, envelopes, letters, photos, maps, and a passport. But Karen Rose's 24-by-36-inch piece is an exercise in forced whimsy that tosses together a beach scene punctuated by, among other things, a flamingo, a ukulele-playing woman in a grass skirt, a hot-air balloon, a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket, and an ancient building with a big "Vacancy" sign. A huge postage stamp is slapped onto the upper right-hand corner.

David Edgar, one of only three male artists included in the show, contributes a tiny pair of collages that hark back to Richard Hamilton's famous Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? from the '50s. In Luxuriate in a world apart, we see a woman's legs, a castle, and part of a large, bright-yellow flower. The equally vivid companion piece, Luxuriously rich and newly exciting, features a business-suited man, a sunbathing woman, and what looks to be the same yellow flower. Each of these crisp, cleanly delineated images aglow with primary colors, is labeled at the bottom with its title in the form of a cutout from a magazine ad.

For Greetings to Alexander From Leonidas, Vicki Cohen puts four postcard-size panels in an intricately carved, black, wooden frame, then dots the panels with stamps and postmarks, dated 776 B.C., from four Greek cities, as well as cutouts of homing pigeons and buildings from Greek classical architecture. A handwritten message sprawls across the panels: "Dear Alex, The games are going well. The Pentathlon is proving to be the event to watch. Are you proceeding with the invasion of Persia? Keep me informed. -- Leo"

If Cohen is attempting to re-create a slice of ancient history, her facts are a mess: Alexander the Great wasn't even born until 124 years after the death of the Spartan king Leonidas, and the 776 B.C. postmarks, from the year of the first Olympic games, precede the lives of both men by several centuries. If, on the other hand, her misinformation is intentional, she has pulled off a sly commentary on how haphazardly history is often absorbed by tourists.

The show's best pieces are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Lynn Gall's On the Edge of Extinction takes the exhibition's theme quite literally. Using an old desk organizer found at a thrift shop, the artist has assembled a sort of portfolio of overlapping collages. Each includes the usual elements of stamps and maps, along with fragments of postcards laced with references to e-mail and other high-tech modes of communication. In a brilliant final touch, Gall weaves pieces of colorful, textured handmade paper -- another almost-extinct medium -- into the individual pages of her "book," which rests on a small table. Two abstracts made with handmade paper hang from the walls on either side of the table, creating a cozy little environment.

In sharp contrast, two pieces by an artist called Anjal take the show's theme into the metaphysical realm. Both pay tribute to what the exhibition catalog calls "the Goddess of Vegetation" and the organic materials required to produce paper and hence postcards. In Garlic Ritual II, Anjal presents an elaborate combination of computer-generated and mixed-media imagery of women harvesting garlic on the fringes of what looks to be an altar. The work is on a 35-by-40-inch piece of unmounted, unframed canvas that hangs by pieces of string from a sculpted tube of polyvinyl chloride, a common industrial plastic resin. It's a jarring but stimulating conflation of materials from vastly different eras.

Anjal's other work, Temple II, takes the notion of the vegetable origins of paper even further into the surreal. The piece is an imposing installation of ten-foot-tall constructions of handmade green and yellow paper molded to resemble giant stalks of celery. (The catalog says there are six; I counted seven.) These pillars rest on thin, crumpled sheets of gauzy fabric scattered with a couple dozen pieces of what look like petrified heads of cabbage and lettuce.

The only other pieces that come close to matching those of Gall and Anjal seem only tenuously connected to the show's theme. Claudine Laabs' Take a Flying Flamingo is a stunning 15-by-20-inch color photograph of five flamingos in flight above light blue water, but what it has to do with postcards is beyond me. And Pamela Larkin Caruso's Greetings From Palm Beach, Wish You Were Here, one of the few oils in the show, is an intentionally garish portrait of a fleshy woman with bulging belly and pendulous breasts, sitting near a beach umbrella. It's an eerily accurate rendering of one of those leathery-skinned Palm Beach socialites with more money than taste, but, again, it seems slightly out of place.

But then themed exhibitions of this magnitude are almost by definition an eclectic collection of often mismatched pieces. Like so many of the collages that make up "Postcards on the Edge," that's part of their charm.

"Postcards on the Edge" is on display through July 20 at ArtServe, 1350 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-462-9191.

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Michael Mills

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