The Caustic Jelly Post Portraits of buZ blurr
In the April 13, 1972, issue of Rolling Stone, then one of the most popular and influential youth culture American magazines, an article on mail art first appeared in a mass circulation journal. Written by Thomas Albright, the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, this “new art school” was described as, “One of the most far-reaching, far-out and potentially revolutionary avant-garde cultural undergrounds.” Suddenly, this formerly elusive postal network cultivated by Ray Johnson and others of his New York Correspondance School was laid on the platter of a larger audience upon which to feast.
One of those starved for such a revelation was Russell Butler of Gurdon, Arkansas, who jumped into the expanding network like the open throttle on one of the railroad trains he worked on. Taking on a variety of names, such as Sweeney Todd, Hoo Hoo Archives, and buZ blurr, Butler began mailing out through the Image Bank lists found in FILE Megazine to which he began subscribing. FILE had become correspondence central for the mail art network, and it was here that one of the first mail art controversies arose between long time participants and those recently involved.
Fluxus member Ken Friedman wrote to FILE in the December 1975 issue in an essay entitled Freedom, Excellence and Choice, that, “The pressing onslaught of the latter-day junk-mail movement took the joy out of it for us, and I notice that none of us today engage in much of that sort of work. Why should we place effortful works at the service of persons who dash KWIK-KOLLAGE bits of trash together, printed in the thousands and sent out with little care or concern.” Among those kwik-kopy krap artists cited was Hoo Hoo Archives.
“Most of the stuff circulating now is dandyist posturing against boundaries long ago broken, and it doesn’t hold up well,” Friedman ranted. “Measure Vautier’s FOIRRE TOUT or my own AMAZING FACTS or the first issue of ASSEMBLING against Danielli’s L.A. ARTISTS PUBLICATION or the later issues of ASSEMBLING. Given your choice, which would you rather own? Measure the WEEKLY BREEDER of the early years against the latter years, measure them all against HOO HOO ARCHIVES and judge.”
“There is no comparison. And while art-market pricing -that medium which we first sought to evade- may not be the best criterion, it is notable that early BREEDERS fetch healthy sums, original pages at $125 each, while HOO HOO has no market whatsoever. Why is this? for the same reason that people seek out and wish to own the early Dada publications and there is no appreciable market for old issues of that series of ‘art freebies’ given out at art supply stores everywhere. It is not their rarity: it is the difference in the quality of contribution to the ongoing dialogue of the arts.”
To his credit, Butler stood up to the attack and drafted a reply of his own. Rather then retreat from the barbs of a sometimes contentious art scene, he persisted in making art and sending it out.
“…recently in grand conceit, Ken set himself up as some omnipotent granddaddy of The Eternal Network in his condescending essay entitled Freedom, Excellence & Choice, then preceded to tell us, in the vernacular of the CIA, that WE, the troops, had better shape up.”
“Again to emulate Ken and drop some names, which is his wont to do, I think when he turned critic he lost all claim to the Pataphyical, a philosophy of Duchamp, George Brecht and even his mentor, George Maciunas, which allows each man to live his life as an exception proving no law but his own!”
Part of his letter to Friedman read, “For sometime now, I have viewed my involvement in the eternal network as, indeed, futile, infantile and meaningless except that it was free. Free because I had liberated it from monetary value. I’ve been brooding ever since receiving your mailing. Surely this is a joke. Hoo me? Bad art? Did you see some potential and wish to antagonize it out.”
I reprint part of this early mail art controversy for but one reason. One never knows where the trail may lead. Today Friedman is in Oslo, Norway, teaching at a business college, surfacing every now and then to direct Fluxus historians on Friedman’s own version of events. Butler continues to be an active participant in mail art, traveling to meet his fellow correspondents, participating in major gatherings and documenting these meetings in an exceptional series of artist stampsheets.
Personally, I have learned a great lesson from this and have used it when corresponding with newcomers to the field. Never judge a person by his or her initial efforts. It’s enough that the fledgling mail artist brings an enthusiastic approach to beginning efforts. In time, something may develop. Or perhaps not. But in Russell Butler’s case, his activity brought forth a consistent body of exceptional work.
You can read about the life of Russell Butler in the recently published book The Factsheet Five Reader (Crown Publishers, 1997), by R. Seth Friedman. In a work by Bill Daniels, Who is Bozo Texino, in which the author goes in search of a boxcar graffitist, he’s told about buZ blurr, “a mail-art guru living in Gurdon, Arkansas.” Daniels describes buZ as “the most poetic of the boxcar graffitiers.”
buZ is many things to many people. He’s been a long time installation artist as well. His Papercide Park, which is hidden off to the side of the railroad tracks in Gurdon, is a temple of American waste, an area littered with the accumulated remains of a paper society. buZ describes it as an “a site specific environmental artwork for the rapid decomposition of paper back to the stuff of all the world.”
Any of his many accomplishments makes for exciting reading, but I dwell on but one aspect of buZ blurr. His stampsheets documenting mail art gatherings are one of the finest mementoes of the movement, and this essay addresses the methods and history of his Caustic Jelly Post begun in the early eighties.
Butler took the name Hoo Hoo Archives in a revelation after encountering found visual poetry. The words appeared on a movie marquee, formed when some of the letters fell off. In 1977, the marquee crashed to the ground, and Butler knew it was time for a change. He laid Hoo Hoo to rest and became buZ blurr.
But Hoo Hoo does make a return appearance from time to time. As late as 1997, blurr characterizes his meeting with mail artists Boog and Eric Farnsworthy as “hoohooliganism.” Another undated stampsheet uses the term “hoohoohobos.”
It was Butler’s contention that most of the railroad graffiti of the thirties and forties was not the work of tramps as most contended, but of railroad workers who had access to the main switching yards. Writing on boxcars (“Kilroy was Here” being the most famous) at these crossroads, their work was spread throughout the country at lightning fast speed. Butler continued this practise by writing poetic two or three word phrases on the cars accompanied by a signature portrait of himself in a beard.
Just before the movie marque fell, Butler had written the words “buZ blurr” on one of his boxcars. He choose it as the name to replace Hoo Hoo when working within the mail art network.
Gurdon, Arkansas, is a million miles from nowhere, some eighty miles or so south of Little Rock. Isolation proved one of the main stimulus to his adventures in mail art, and isolation drove him to set out on long trips to meet his correspondents. In 1980 he traveled to Ukiah, California, for the Inter-Dada Festival, and among others he met E. F. Higgins III, an accomplished maker of artist postage stamps, who encouraged buZ to make his own.
Although he had done several sheets of photocopy stamps in the late seventies, buZ found a process he was comfortable with soon after his trip to California. He had purchased an early Polaroid instant camera, a Polaroid 3000, which he began experimenting with.
There was much excitement about these recently developed instant cameras. Most artists concerned themselves with the manipulation of the film surface, which was easily distorted before drying. buZ choose a different path.
When one took a photograph with the Polaroid, the picture was ejected from the camera covered with a negative image, which one peeled off and was told to dispose of because it was “caustic.” Instead, buZ took the negative image, allowed it to dry, and then carved (with an exacto knife) the light areas. The resultant stencil was then placed on a photocopy machine and copied, creating a high contrast portrait.
The images look very much like an eraser carving, which have become quite common in the mail art network. Erasers were first carved by Eastern European artists, who had no access to traditional rubber stamps, which were outlawed by the government distrustful of their misuse. The rubber stamp was a symbol of power denied, and the eraser carving a means of circumventing the system.
The first portraits created by carving the Polaroid negatives were of buZ himself and his wife Emmy (True to form, buz has also created a persona for his better half. She often appears in his stampworks as Earlene.).
Seeking a look like the Man Ray 1930 photograph of Duchamp in profile, the camera was held close to the subject, so that the face filled the frame. This was to become standard procedure for the Caustic Jelly Post Portraits, as they became known. The camera was held only two to three feet from the subject, rendering the subject momentary blind as the flash exploded in a burst of creativity.
buZ has called the Caustic Jelly Post Portraits “polaroid performances,” and they are indeed an interactive experience. Polaroid Proliferation,” “uneven captivas,” and “Pictures Virus” are other terms he uses to describe the process.
More often the Caustic Jelly Post Portraits contain either railroad terms, such as “pulling tonnage,” “Tether D.,” “this boxcar on edge,” “stoppages,” “Surrealville Polka Dot Express,” “buddha brakeman,” “flat out stencil dispatch” and “Jamaica spur,” or phrases recalling his graffiti works.
As a rule, buZ tries to do one work a day on the boxcars. They often refer to actual events in his life, such as a trip to Texas, which becomes “Lone Star Sojourn.” Other such phrases appearing in the texts of his stampsheets include, ” fluxus event witness,” “briars untie my shoes,” “gift of healing carpenters, ” rust never rests,” “sofa sloth demons of the melancholiac” and “popeye summer of rage.”
Aside from this documentary work of other mail artists, blurr also turns the camera on himself each birthday. They are often accompanied by self-depreciating terms such as “glabrous pate acrophobic, and “lyssophobic underwater man.”
As well as assuming various personas (Sweeney, Hoo Hoo, buZ blurr), Butler has also established imaginary lands in the tradition of many artistamp artists. Surrealville and Principality of buZ are the most often used.
All of stampsheets are perforated. During a short layover in Prescott, Arkansas, while working on the railroad in 1982, he noticed a sign on a print shop indicating they were moving and asked asked about the availability of a perforator. Told they had one, he obtained a turn of the century Rossbach perforator.
Of all the stampheets blurr has done, most profound are the stampsheets gathering images of participants attending various mail art events. They serve as a reminder that these meetings are just as important in the mail art experience as postal encounters. Taken together as a whole, they reveal a dedicated trail of meetings with his correspondents.
In 1985, buZ came to Dallas to attend a performance by German performance and mail artist Jürgen Olbrich. That same year he was in Dallas for the opening of a show at Modern Realism gallery featuring Ken Brown’s postcards and a mail art show, “When I was a Cowboy” curated by Chuck Stake visiting from Canada.
In 1986, he visited Stake in Calgary for a Mail Art Symposium attended by Richard Meade (Los Angeles), Mark Dicey (Calgary), Cracker Jack Kid (Boston), Ed Varney (Vancouver), Anna Banana (Vancouver), Wendy Toogood (Calgary), Sandra Tivy (Calgary), and Jürgen Olbrich (Kassel, Germany).
Before arriving in Calgary (by car from Arkansas), blurr stopped in Billings, Montana, to visit his old correspondent Frank Ferguson.
1986 was an active year for mail artists. It was the year of the Mail Art Decentralized Congress, in which over 80 meetings were held worldwide in some thirty countries. blurr attended one of these meetings in Dallas, in which he documented Kay Thomas, Janet Christensen, Ron Gasowski, Dogfish, Pam Nelson, Carol Zastoupil, Daniel Plunkett, Al Ackerman, Dazar and John Held, Jr.
blurr was also in New York City in 1986, where he met and made portraits of E. F. Higgins III, Monty Cantsin, Carlo Pittore and mail art pioneer John Evans.
In 1987, buZ was again in Dallas for a performance by Japanese mail artists Shozo Shimamoto and Ryosuke Cohen.
The following year, blurr traveled to Los Angeles were he met Jesse Edwards, Creative Thing, Richard Meade, and Deborah Briggs. He then went to Santa Barbara, where he met Pat Fish, adding her to his growing collection of Caustic Jelly Post portraits.
In 1991, blurr traveled to Quincy, Illinois, to meet artist postage stamp pioneer Joel Smith, who had introduced the artform to Jas. Felter of Vancouver, Canada. It was Felter who staged the first exhibition of artistamps in 1974. Smith had been a professor of art at Simon Fraser College, where Felter was in charge of exhibitions at the student gallery.
That same year, blurr went to Florida, where he met mail artists Jack Saunders and Fran Cutrell Rutkovsky. And he was again in Dallas to witness a performance with another artist from Japan, Mayumi Handa.
1992 was another year of mail art congressing – the year of the Decentralized World-Wide Networker Congresses. Peter Kustermann and Angela Pahler traveled the world that year meeting mail artists in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and the United States. Among their many stops was Gurdon, Arkansas, where blurr captured them in the act of Free Personal Mail Delivery. Together they traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where another Congress was held and documented.
In 1993, blurr was again on the road to Seattle, Washington, where he participated in the MARS Guild’s Alternative Artfest, a gathering of artistamp artists Bugpost, Carl Chew, Ed Varney, Sheba, Greg T. Byrd, Jas. Felter, Kite Post, and special guest from Germany the late Joki.
He was in Dallas that same year to witness a performance by the Fake Picabia Bros. – Picasso Gaglione and John Held, Jr. On hand were mail artists Honoria, Daniel Plunkett, JEM, Steve Goudy, and ex-posto-facto.
blurr returned to California in 1994 for the California Museum of Art’s artist exhibition curated by Harley. On hand at the opening were Geoffrey Cook, Bonnie Byrd, Gay Shelton, Tim Mancusi, Kevin Burton, Turk LeClair, Patricia Tavenner, Dogfish and Graffiti Grafix.
On his first trip to Europe in 1995, blurr went to France for Nato’s Festival of the Unclothed. Among the mail artists present, he made Caustic Jelly Post portraits of Reika Yamamoto (Japan), La Toan Vinh (Canada), Giovanni and Renata Strada (Italy), Emilio Morandi (Italy, Bruno Capatti (Italy), as well as a number of French participants.
From France, buZ traveled to Trogen, Switzerland to visit H. R. Fricker, who had recently put on an exhibition of artistamps at the Swiss National Postal Museum. His stampsheet commemorating the visit depicted Fricker’s entire family (and dog).
One of blurr’s most accomplished stampsheets depicts his 1997 participation in the Pacific Rim Artistamp Congress held in San Mateo, California. In this one sheet he captures some of the most active members of the artistamp community: Patricia Tavenner, Anna Banana, Steve Smith, Picasso Gaglione, Ed Varney, Dogfish, Eleanor Kent, Bugpost, Jas. Felter, Harley, Ken Burton, Tim Mancusi, Joel Cohen, Tom Kerr, John Held, Jr., Marilyn Califf, Steve Caravello and Diana Mars. On his trip back from California, he documented another meeting in Lawrence, Kansas, with mail artists Boog and Eric Farnsworthy.
Mail art deals with the act of shared creativity in all forms. It is often misleading to those unfamiliar with the field, who assume that the totality of the activity takes place through the post. In truth, mail art is an umbrella that encompasses a variety of artistic pursuits including artists books, zines, photocopy, performance, fax, congresses, rubber stamp and artist postage stamp activity.
Creative communication is the central drive of the activity, regardless of the medium used to achieve it. No one in the network has documented the personal exchange in real time as poetically as buZ blurr.
He is known throughout the world, yet his neighbors in Gurdon are completely unsuspecting of his hidden life in the mail. A local friend of his traveling through Europe was shocked to see his work on billboards advertising the artistamp exhibition at the Swiss Postal Museum. He is an unassuming person, who would never blow his own horn. He doesn’t have to. His work speaks for itself.
John Held, Jr.
San Francisco, CA