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An Artist's Controversial Stamp Acts

Hernandez de Luna creates the stamps on a computer. The paper he prints them on is perforated with a century-old pedal contraption he found in a thrift store. He collects old envelopes from specialty stores to complement the stamps. For example, a stamp of a marijuana leaf was mailed on a 1924 envelope from the Department of Agriculture. Stamps referring to priest sex abuse were sent on old envelopes from Boys Town and various churches. A stamp featuring Ted Kaczynski was mailed on a Postal Service envelope. A Bill Clinton stamp is on a copy of a White House envelope.

He usually sends the letters to himself or to galleries where he is exhibiting. Sometimes they arrive with messages like "this is a fraudulent stamp" or "this is blasphemy" scrawled on them, presumably by postal workers. Most of them are hand-canceled, meaning that workers got a close look at the stamp and sent it through the mail anyway.

"That makes them a participant in the art," he says.

Hernandez de Luna says he is part of an international "mail art" tradition.

One of the first fake stamps to gain attention was French artist Yves Klein's monochrome blue, used to mail out thousands of invitations to exhibits in the '50s. American Robert Watts, a '60s artist, is also a patriarch of fake stamps. A number of artists currently produce fake stamps, but Hernandez de Luna is one of the few mailing them.

Lynne Warren, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where Hernandez de Luna's work was shown in 2003, says he is part of the heritage of Fluxus, a radical art movement that flourished in Europe and the United States in the 1960s in the hands of people like Joseph Beuys and Yoko Ono. It rejected traditional art objects and promoted happenings and other kinds of artmaking that went outside the bounds of galleries and disturbed the status quo. "They were," Warren says, "a very subversive lot who wanted to get art more directly to the people."

Hernandez de Luna says the provocative content of his stamps is appreciated, especially in the post-9/11 world of heightened security. Many of his stamps lampoon the Republican administration, but he also attacks high-profile Democrats, featuring references to Bill Clinton's infidelity and Jesse Jackson's out-of-wedlock child.

"Anyone who does something shameful and deceiving, who preaches moral greatness and then screws up, they deserve to be on a stamp," he says. "Politicians are easy targets. And I have a real dislike for the Catholic Church -- I was raised Catholic -- what they teach and what they hide."

He "left the pope alone for a few years" at the request of his mother, "a real old-fashioned Mexican woman."

A stamp that has drawn complaints shows a traditional image of Jesus and Mary turned on its side in a sexually suggestive way.

Hernandez de Luna sees his work as a way to bring levity to contemporary political and social issues, as in the stamps that advertised anthrax in orange, lemon-lime and grape flavors.

"I made the fruit anthrax stamp in reaction to how the media was so overrun with the anthrax scare," he says.

That stamp and the ensuing federal inquiry caused the cancellation of a 2002 show of "Sinister Plants of North America" that Hernandez de Luna and Thompson had been commissioned to do at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.

Despite his scrapes, the FBI's Chicago office said there is no ongoing investigation of Hernandez de Luna's work. Secret Service spokesman Lorie Lewis said the inquiry into the Columbia College exhibit has been completed, with no art confiscated and no one charged. A spokeswoman for the Postal Service said she couldn't comment on whether it is conducting an investigation but was familiar with his history. The Postal Service issued cease-and-desist letters in 1997 and 1998.

"We respect artistic freedom, but we also have a responsibility to look into exhibits or statements when necessary," she said.

Hernandez de Luna has never been charged or arrested in connection with his art. With recent works including an image of a plane flying into the Sears Tower and "the Hamas baby bomber," Hernandez de Luna thinks he may draw more scrutiny from authorities. It's a risk he's willing to take.

"Everything has a consequence," he says. "If you get in a love affair, that will have a consequence. If you do something to provoke, as an artist that's our mission."

He says if he went to jail for his art, he could accept that.

"If I can just get someone to really think about what's going on in our world, I'm happy."

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