|Richard in Front of It All|
Marla Kittler (aka Lucky Pierre) who currently resides in Charleston South Carolina was spearheading this endeavor to help Richard out, thus her initial message. It seems that she’s in contact with him pretty frequently. The two of them talk about once a week she told me later. Weeks in advance the two of us decided to meet at his storage unit in Charlotte North Carolina. As Marla put it in one of her postcards, this was a “storage war.” Before I got to the units (that’s right) I didn’t realize that “war” was the appropriate choice of words.
|Marla Kittler working with the pictures.|
The pleasantries only lasted a few seconds. I said “hello” to Richard, I met Marla who’d only sent mail art and text messages with for years, and they turned and went back to work. I didn’t have a lot of guidance. Richard scampered off into one of the three units to continue his work while Marla was up front organizing papers. “Right here is a box for correspondence, here’s a box of ephemera, and up here’s a nice stack of cartoons from newspapers that would be good for Carina in Finland. Oh, there’s a box of Ray’s down here.” Obviously, the Ray she was referring to was Ray Johnson. I’d never been that close to an original Ray, other than in NYC where an “Original Ray” is a pizza place. When she turned around to continue her work I kneelt down and simply touched one of the envelopes in the Ray box. I would have gone through them and looked a bit closer but I didn’t want to waste any more time. Richard and Marla were in work mode and didn’t want to let them down.The scope of the work was immense. Of the three storage units, one was pretty much cleaned out or at least under control; it looked kind of organized. Most of my time was spent going in that one unit over and over again. Mostly we were getting rid of things that had been damaged by a water leak. The second unit was dented but not completely worked through. By the time I left that day there was still a stack of boxes all the way to the ceiling that we hadn’t even touched, boxes we couldn’t even get to. Nothing was taken out of the unit on the far left. That unit was wall to wall, ceiling to ceiling; front to back and completely full. It was obvious within seconds that we weren’t going to complete the job in just one day.
|Some of the Many Treasures|
At one point in the day I asked out loud, “Why is paper so damn heavy?” Richard’s response was, “Paper is wood.” I let that one seep in.For a while I didn’t know what I was doing. It took me an hour to find the rhythm. I wanted to be productive, I wanted to be helpful, but I wasn’t sure how. I started taking boxes off of the piles and then I’d put them on a desk. I’d look through the box and then try and put it in another pile of boxes that it corresponded with. Sometimes I’d change the box out if it had obvious water damage. I looked to see what my cohorts were doing and then I copied them.
The correspondence went in one pile. The voluminous amount of books was stacked off to the side. Magazines and bits of paper had their own section. Framed pictures were handed to Marla who was wrapping them up as we went. One of the more interesting finds was a framed envelope from Ray Johnson. While Marla and I were looking at the frame Richard came over to tell the story. Whenever I felt Richard was going to tell a story about something, I slowly worked my way over to him to hear it. Richard took the piece (I’m paraphrasing here) and said, “Ray was doing these mushrooms. So I took the mushroom he sent to me and added a stem. Ray sent it back to me adding to my name ‘Poisonous Mushroom Richard Canard.’” This piece was quickly was wrapped up and placed in the appropriate pile.Another story was about the infamous “Piss Christ” from Andreas Serrano. “You know SECCA (museum in Winston-Salem NC where Richard was an assistant curator) was the first to show that piece. The slides came back from NY, you know like how you did then, with a lot of artists’ work and we selected it for a show on crosses. Everything was fine for a little while and then Jesse Helms got ahold of the story and it got out of control. It was difficult at the museum for a little while.” A little bit later Richard produced the original brochure for the show. He handed it to me and said, “You should take that.”
Quite often that’s how it happened. If either Marla or I were interested in something he’d almost immediately offer it to us. I was never really sure how to respond. I didn’t want him to think that I was there just to get stuff from him because I wasn’t. I was there because I wanted to help him. I was there because I respected him immensely. Of course the items were an added bonus but I would have worked all day for nothing. At the end of the day my car was filled with boxes of things, some of them were works dating back to the 1960’s. I took a painted tin with the outline of his hand on it, a white metal piece with six pink dots in the middle, a large wooden assemblage piece, and anything else he handed me. Mostly my car was filled with boxes, mostly trash that we’d taken from the units. There were so many moldy boxes from the water damage.
When I got home I went through all of the boxes to find things I could repurpose. Most notably in my “trash” I set aside large desk calendars that I’m going to make into a series I call “A Day in the Life of Richard Canard.” Basically I’m going to find the more interesting days, the ones where he doodled a bit and then mail them. Some of the days were really worked. The calendars were one of the few items that he emphatically stated needed to be tossed. Most things he wavered a little bit, and then said he needed time to “look through things.”
|Richard labored over these "unfinished" works.|
While looking through a box, I found a stack of his address books. I’m not sure how old many of these were but when I showed them to Richard, he immediately put them in a different stack. “I might find some use for these” he said to me. These books drew the most interest from him all day.One whole box was filled with correspondence from the 1970’s, most of them were stamped 1972. I flipped through the stack quickly, not really recognizing any name. That box was one of the boxes where I wanted to sit down at a desk and look at every little thing. I felt like there were some clues in that box. That box held some knowledge I didn’t have.
A box was filled with old candy. We also found a few packages of almonds and about eight or nine cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.
All three units contained some of his larger pieces, a lot of them he called “unfinished.” He spent a lot of time cleaning off many of these pieces with a broom and lining them up against the storage doors across the way. Some of them were painted and some of them were framed bits of cloth. He mentioned these often, especially the ones that he hadn’t finished. It was obvious that he wanted to salvage these items a little more than the rest.There were three collages with broken glass that he said dated back to the 1950’s. Although he didn’t remember who (they weren’t signed) had created the collages, he said that “they dated well before Pop Art.”
A box full of panty hose.Two giant unpainted crosses. The guy across the way who kept leaving and then coming back (I think he lived there) asked Richard, “What he was doing with the crosses?” I think Richard rattled off something about them being part of an art project, to which the guy in a Metallica t-shirt and a window air conditioning unit perched in the back of his windowless van responded, “Let me know, I could use those.”
Six or seven handmade animal figurines.A wooden Martin Luther King Jr. sculpture.
Hundreds of brochures from art shows.
Slide carousels that read “Ray Johnson art” on them. He had maybe four or five of these.A handheld vacuum cleaner that he couldn’t find the chord for.
Hundreds of unused envelopes and linen postcards.Dozens of sketch books from tiny to gigantic, many of which only had a used page or two.
A red desk and matching end table with a white cross painted on it. Richard said they “Came from a woman in Winston-Salem that painted the crosses on everything in an effort to ward off the KKK.”Around four o’clock the sun had started to slip behind the trees. It was getting dark along our storage shed alley. Unfortunately our whole work space was dotted with things. We were blocking the alleyway, even had to move cars and paintings when the creepy van-guy interested in the crosses showed back up. Everyone knew our time was almost up but we had hours and days of work left. When I asked Richard if there was any sort of light in the units he simply shook his head no. “We might want to start putting things back” I said to my two compatriots. Like clockwork, our mission changed from excavation to recovery.
Marla started putting things back into the far right unit. In her work she’d found three unused filing cabinets that she started filling with items. She had a system that included a walkway down the center of the unit. As quickly as I could, I started stacking boxes along the predestined route. Richard, who was obviously getting tired but just as spry as the first few minutes I was there, worked on the middle unit. The far left unit was still completely filled, never touched. Somehow we ended up getting a table in there along with all of trash that wouldn’t fit into my car. The recovery took the last hour.
Once everything was housed our next plan was food. Unfortunately I was the point person on food because I seemed to know the most about the area. I did not like this job. Richard didn’t have GPS and we were looking to eat at Saturday dinner time. I was worried that Richard would get lost or that restaurant we had I picked Zada Jane’s, would be completely full. That part of town is the only one I really knew so that’s where I was pointing everyone. Marla led with Richard in the middle and then me behind him. Within seconds our caravan had been severed. Marla went on and I caught up with Richard in a parking lot. Somehow we all got to our destination, somehow the restaurant wasn’t full.Without work to be done, the three of us were able to simply talk. Marla and I did most of the talking since Richard was a little tired from working and a little stressed out from the trip over. The two of them got the duck while I got lobster mac and cheese. The food was good enough.
Over the couple hours we were there, the three of us talked about French New Wave movies, Richard’s first hitching-hiking trip across the country in 1960, Marla’s brief encounter with Iggy Pop at a show, Richard’s college summer job at a Yosemite grocery store, his thoughts on that new Mel Gibson movie I don’t know the name of, Marla’s magazine work in NYC, and Richard’s “lack of an ear for music.” I’ve heard him say this before and I find it most curious, most curious. It all seems to go together for me.
I don’t remember what I talked about but I talked too much. Being the least interesting one at the table I didn’t need to say as much as I did. My main contribution was energy. Just following the flow of the conversation was difficult for me. I honestly don’t know anything at all about art, not really. I have giant gaps in my thinking about it. I know a little bit about dada, I know a little bit about abstract expressionism, and I know a little bit about pop art, after that I know nothing.. Forget knowing anything about mail-art, its history, is ancestors…no way. For something that I spend a large percentage of the day thinking about and or doing, I have little context about it. Not that my general ignorance of all this stuff is a bad thing, to me it’s a challenge, I need to know more. They showed me I need to know more and next time I see them, I will.
Having a one on one connection with Richard and Marla is important to me. Seeing them validates the whole process, makes it more human. When I mentioned something about this to Richard his response was telling, “So, mail-artists are hard to get to know” or something like that. Maybe it was more like, “Mail artists communicate through the mail.” The latter sounds more like it. I got what he was saying; the purpose of a mail-artist is to have creative correspondence through the mail, not in person-that is the literal definition. The identity of the mail artist pops up in the mailbox. For OG’s like Richard this makes complete sense, for me, whose greatest excitement and subsequent identity has come through a social “thing” (shows etc.) like punk rock, I can’t completely submit to this feeling. The social aspect of my artistic identity is immensely important to me. My online persona is vast. I don’t mind being laughed at, I don’t mind being seen.
So many of the things I make have faces right in the center of them. I like personalities. Part of this anonymity is what might draw many of us who’ve grown up with social media to the mail-art endeavor, or it might simply kill it. Either way I got to see some amazing things and hear unreal stories for just a few hours’ work. I got my dinner paid too. How could the day have been better?