Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Stamp Act

By Frank Sennett

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  Not an hour ago, two U.S. Postal Inspectors showed up at Michael Thompson's Pilsen apartment with badges and guns. After poring over tiny examples of his art, they asked him to explain -- in precise detail -- how he created "Rostenkowski: Buy, Sell, Trade" and the dozens of other fake stamps he's sent through the world's mail systems since 1990. The inspectors enjoyed the irony of a stamp honoring Rosty, who was disgraced by a Congressional post-office scandal. But this was no exercise in art appreciation; the Feds had arrived to deliver a message. Mail one of these again, they warned, and we'll prosecute you for felony mail fraud.

"They asked me if I'd ever copied one of their stamps," Thompson says, pacing a River West block. "I said, 'Nah -- you guys have your style and I have mine.'" The artist manages a wry smile, then turns his head away from the sharp morning wind rushing west down Chicago Avenue. A black wool beret is pulled tight over his ears and his face is awash in stubble. Michael Thompson has finally been licked.

"I'm done," he confirms quietly. "The Feds can really mess up your life." Fellow artist Michael Hernandez de Luna, Thompson's partner in postal crime since 1994, ruefully shakes his head.

Later, de Luna, who's been ducking his visit from Uncle Sam, phones with an update. "They called me," he says. "My lawyer's dealing with it now." In case there's any misunderstanding, de Luna will also be informed -- by registered letter, no less -- to cease and desist.

Less than two weeks before their latest gallery show, Thompson and de Luna face major career modifications. Both artists work in other media -- paintings, prints and assemblages will round out the exhibition -- but it's their stamps lampooning subjects ranging from disgruntled postmen to Chernobyl deer that have really made a mark.

In fact, the mock Norwegian stamp featuring a skeletal, irradiated reindeer marked the end of Thompson and de Luna's postal escapades. Officials in Norway melted down at Thompson's jibe and demanded U.S. intervention, sealing the artists' fate like a No. 10 envelope.

It's not as if the post office didn't know where to find these guys -- the government is the most avid collector of Thompson and de Luna originals. Whenever the sorting machines detect a questionable stamp and kick it out for inspection, postal employees have two options: hand-cancel the letter or pull it out of the mail stream.

Only about 25 percent of the fake stamps beat the system. The rest are filed away by inspectors. "This is what becomes theatre," de Luna says. "At the moment the machine stops, the postal worker is in power over that envelope. Where's he gonna go?" An envelope sporting de Luna's "Just Horsen Around" stamp commemorating equestrian sex was hand-canceled six times. Was the postal worker enraged, or amused? Considering the possibilities is part of the fun.

Postal cops have also attended de Luna and Thompson's previous shows. A few years back, de Luna even corresponded with a Seattle inspector who had compiled a dossier of his fakes. "The first letter told me to stop thinking, stop creating," de Luna says. "The second one was, 'You're going to be charged postage-due for them.' Which was fine." The art, after all, was never about theft of service; it was meant to merrily prank the system.

"It's shock," says gallery owner Morlen Sinoway. "But it's not shock as in the sixties when people were nailing themselves to Volkswagens. These stamps are participatory and hilarious. Everybody gets joy out of looking at them."

Thompson and de Luna, who met in the Art Institute's printmaking department, engaged in artistic one-upsmanship with the postal satires. "It's his fault," Thompson says of de Luna. Before his friend started crafting outlandish stamp designs, such as a series of dildos named Tom, Dick and Hairy, "I was very low-key, very subtle," Thompson says. But he soon joined in the over-the-top fun with a work honoring Group Sex Day and a Nast-style issue depicting China stabbing Taiwan in the back.

Thompson says he was drawn to stamps because they are "gorgeous small prints." He and de Luna manipulate appropriated images onto transparencies, scanning the ersatz creations into a computer and printing them out on perforated sheets. Except for the lack of stickum on the back, they look and feel like the real thing.

But it'll cost you a lot more than 32 cents to hang a sheet of them on your wall. In recent years, de Luna and Hernandez have sold stamp sets for as much as $2,000. And the buzz created by the investigation, coupled with the government-imposed scarcity of hand-canceled fakes, should drive prices even higher. Once again, de Luna and Thompson seem poised to enjoy the last laugh.

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