Stampology: Jonathan Herder's New Western Sublime

11 October, 2006

"stampographic panorama (detail)", 2003, collaged stamps, ink on paper, 60 by 16 inches.


Jonathan Herder collages together thousands of US postal stamps to produce large scale landscapes that playfully tweak the traditional image of the iconic American west. Treating each stamp as a single unit of color, Herder makes of himself a kind of physical pointillist or, better, a DIY digital photo-mosaicist. He even emphasizes this transmutation of stamp into pixel by leaving large ragged holes throughout his pictures and giving many of them irregular frayed-looking edges, both of which qualities recall the 'stair-stepping' and dropouts of lossy image compression.

The coloration of the source stamps serves Herder's western imagery perfectly. Most of these stamps are washed-out, translucent shades of brown, pink, and green and their combination perfectly evokes the plains and desserts of the American west. This color combo also happens to look a lot like the recently introduced forgery-proof color currency, pointing out a visual resonance between two major pieces of Americana that is hard to shake once you've noticed it.

Herder's compositions -- low slung, flat, and sparse -- also serve to place his work clearly in relationship to a particular tradition of American landscape painting. Whereas Thomas Cole and the other well-known romantics of the Hudson River School glorified the lush and dramatic landscape of the Northeastern seaboard, painters who traveled out west, such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran (who made the first paintings of Yosemite), trafficked in a harsher and more restrained vision of the American sublime: nearly featureless yellow plains interrupted by craggy outcroppings of rock.

This version of the American landscape evoked in Herder's work is home, not to Emerson's pantheistic Nature, which "always speaks of spirit," but to the rancher's homestead and the frontiersman's log cabin. This is the American mythical landscape where purification comes from pitched struggle with ungenerous climates and success scratched out by hard labor on poor land.

This is a strange and strident legacy to find sitting around on a simple postage stamp -- especially one that is vector drawn, digitally printed, widely retailed, and marketed through tie-ins with trendy electronic pop music.

Artist's Statement:

My current work is born of a fascination with the postage stamp and the desire to liberate its graphic potency from the mundane confines of bureaucratic purpose, so as to allow a less gravitational flirtation with the seductive states of certainty, the sublime and the heroic.



"Night Desert", 2003, Postage stamps collaged on paper, 14 by 17 inches.

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